A Q&A with Dr. Anton Bizzell: How Can the Business Community Be a Part of the Solution to the Opioid Crisis?

October 1, 2019

Dr. Anton Bizzell.jpg

Dr. Anton Bizzell
Dr. Anton Bizzell, U.S. Chamber Foundation fellow, speaking at the Sharing Solutions national tour event in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 13, 2019.
© Steph Stevens

Anton C. Bizzell, M.D., President and CEO of The Bizzell Group and a U.S. Chamber Foundation fellow, has more than 20 years of combined clinical, research, health services, policy and management experiences with various private and public organizations and agencies within Health and Human Services (HHS).  We sat down with Dr. Bizzell to discuss the role for business in combatting the opioid crisis.

In recent years, the opioid epidemic has affected nearly every aspect of American society. How would you assess the current state of opioid misuse disorder in the U.S.?

Based on the National Survey of Drug Use and Health administered by SAMHSA, a little over 2 million people in the U.S. live with an OUD. Excessive or inappropriate prescribing of opioids originally drove the increasing rates of OUD and overdose death. The home medicine cabinet quickly became the single, largest source of opioids for misuse by friends and family. Social determinants of health and the despair that often accompanies them also have an important role in the expansion and perpetuation of the epidemic, particularly in rural areas where many employment opportunities are in manual labor.

While all these factors are still in play, recently the epidemic has pivoted. The distribution of illicit opioids now penetrates every corner of the country. This supply now contains random amounts and mixtures of illicitly manufactured analogs of the synthetic pharmaceutical, fentanyl. This potent and fast-acting substance is lethal in extremely small quantities and may be found in heroin, illicit stimulates or pressed into pills that look just like pharmaceutical products available by prescription.

The presence of fentanyl in illicitly acquired opioids and other drugs requires a different sort of response when overdose results. All effects of fentanyl occur quickly including respiratory depression and death.  The window of opportunity to reverse an overdose and save a life is narrow indeed. First responders are forced to make quick decisions in the face of losing a life often placing their own safety at risk.

All of these components have contributed to the epidemic as we see today and require communities across the U.S. to get involved, get creative, and be adaptable to the changing environment if we are to overcome this crisis.

How has this crisis changed in recent years, and how have the approaches to solutions evolved to meet that change?

The opioid epidemic is a crisis that demands the Nation’s attention, action, and accountability in offering evidence-based programs or approaches to combat the current climate. Based on the increased federal funding available for programs and organizations addressing OUD, communities across the country now have access to the resources they need to combat opioid use disorders. We are seeing innovative prevention, treatment and recovery programs such as prevention education; scientific research; media/advertising campaigns; outreach events; innovative technology and applications; medication disposal tools; as well as increased collaboration across the hospital, health system, and physician practices.

What is the most surprising aspect of your work in addressing this challenge?

The most alarming aspects are the statistics and the pervasive impact the epidemic is having on the business community and our economy. The White House estimates that the opioid epidemic now costs the nation $504 Billion dollars each year. More than 50% of employers in the U.S. say they have been affected by the opioid crisis. Research suggests that about two-thirds of people who suffer from opioid use disorder are employed. In 2015, an estimated two million workers were not in the labor force due to opioids. Substance use disorder impacts workplace safety, health care costs, productivity, absenteeism, and the bottom line. It’s not only affecting individual employees—this touches their families too. They may have a partner, child, or family member who is struggling with a substance use disorder, so there are several layers to this issue that we have to consider.

However, employers have the opportunity to identify early signs and symptoms of a substance or opioid use disorder and help connect employees to treatment and recovery support. Despite the overwhelming crisis the American workplace is currently experiencing, many small businesses are finding the seeds of a solution and using American ingenuity to overcome this challenge. When employers respond to the opioid epidemic, it benefits the employee and the people that surround them. It is good for employees and good for business.

What can be done to address the stigma attached to substance use disorder and those whose lives are impacted by it?

We’ve come a long way in understanding substance use disorders and its impact on individuals and society. Substance Use Disorders are a serious health condition, just like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.  But stigma and misconceptions can keep people from getting the help they need, and that can have life-threatening consequences. Through an open dialogue, we know this issue is far-reaching—impacting every aspect of our lives and communities. We want people to know that if they or a loved one are struggling with addiction, there is help available and we want them to get that help.  As an employer, schedule an all-hands meeting to talk about the signs of substance use disorders, and where to get help.  Set up referral services through your Employee Assistance Plan.  Offer flexible work hours and family leave to employees who need time to get help or to help a family member with a substance use disorder. 

We have to change the conversation about addiction and to get the word out that this can happen to anyone, anywhere.  We can do this through news articles in print and on tv, through employers, through communities and through the places where people live, work, and go to school.  Host a meeting or sponsor a 5k walk in your community for people affected by substance use disorders, and invite local schools, small businesses, and places of worship to partner.  Pass out brochures at your grocery store or neighborhood park.  Everyone can play a part in letting people know that every human is valuable and deserves help for this life-threatening challenge. 

Why are initiatives, like Sharing Solutions, important?

Sharing Solutions gets the word out about specific strategies and best practices that businesses can use to support employees and their families who may be facing a substance use disorder.  And we also show how businesses can partner with local communities and other stakeholders to come up with new and innovative ideas to reduce stigma and to make sure that everyone with a substance use disorder gets the help they need.

Initiatives like Sharing Solutions are tailored to the needs of business of all sizes; however, we’ve found that the small-to-medium-sized companies are the ones who need these resources the most. Often, the mom-and-pop shops and startups don’t have the bandwidth or capital to run their own employee assistance programs of this nature. Sharing Solutions brides this gap—offering a one-stop-shop for essential information to help curve and end this public health crisis.

How can the business community be a part of the solution and bring positive change to communities?

Corporate philanthropic efforts and community relations programs that support drug misuse prevention and recovery can bridge the gap between businesses and communities. The change we want to see is fewer families affected and the de-stigmatization of substance abuse disorder. Businesses must be intentional about connecting with their employees and building relationships that positively carry over into life outside of work so that when help is needed, there’s someone to turn to instead of relapsing.

Businesses can support, sponsor and host:

  1. Focus and support groups to understand the need.
  2. Community trainings on overdose prevention and reversal.
  3. Community resource fairs.
  4. Existing recreational programs for kids and teens.

How can others get involved and learn more?

You can take action in your community by:

  1. Supporting affected families and encouraging others to join the fight.
  2. Offering support to a friend, coworker, neighbor or family member who you know has a child struggling with this disease.
  3. Talking to your kids about the dangers of drug misuse and healthy behaviors.
  4. Securing and safely disposing of meds.
  5. Getting trained on reversing opioid overdose.
  6. Educating others on the risks through tools and resources provided by non-profits and other organizations.
  7. Sharing best practices, stories, and insights on sharingsolutions.us.