The opioid crisis is sidelining valuable employees. Tennessee’s employers are learning how to fight back
By Cassandra Stephenson / Jackson Sun
Selling marijuana was a means of survival for Jason Pritchard's family when he was growing up. He started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana when he was 18, and at 21 he began taking opioids to manage the pain of injuries he suffered in two car wrecks.
Check out this video on The Jackson Sun:
“I began taking and selling the pills, and at this point, I embarked on a 16-year journey into addiction,” Pritchard said.
He hung on as a “functioning addict” for a few years, earning a college degree in finance, but later became involved in the illegal distribution of pills and cocaine. He was incarcerated three times and has a criminal record studded with felonies.
But he found faith in prison and took advantage of recovery programs offered by the Tennessee Department of Correction. When he was released in 2017, Pritchard had a plan to stay out.
Jason Pritchard, recovery program manager with Ballad Health, sits in one of the front rows of a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce presentation on how employers can help fight the opioid crisis at Ayers Auditorium in Jackson, Tenn., on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. Pritchard struggled with addiction to opioids and other drugs for 16 years before going through recovery and resolving to use his story to help others. (Photo: Stephanie Amador / The Jackson Sun)
Now seven years in recovery and 2.5 years post-incarceration, he serves as the recovery program manager with Ballad Health, Tennessee's fourth-largest employer. He owns a home that he opens up to other formerly incarcerated men who need a stable place to live. He is a certified peer recovery specialist in Tennessee and Virginia and an advocate for programs that help the formerly incarcerated and those with substance abuse issues reenter the workforce.
“I am dedicated to using my testimony to break the stigma of those in recovery or branded with a felony record,” he said.
In many ways, Tennessee's economy is booming. The unemployment rate is at a record low, and Tennessee businesses have created nearly 500,000 jobs over the past decade, according to Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Bradley Jackson. But the growing opioid crisis that continues to devastate the state and the nation has taken a “deep toll” on Tennessee businesses, too. Job recruiters and employers struggle to find and retain a drug-free workforce, Jackson said.
A woman reads a pamphlet about navigating the opioid crisis as an employer at a Tennessee Chamber of Commerce presentation at Ayers Auditorium in Jackson, Tenn., on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. (Photo: Stephanie Amador / The Jackson Sun)
Substance abuse costs Tennessee an estimated $2 billion each year, according to a 2017 University of Tennessee study. The lost wages of about 31,000 Tennesseans who are out of work because of addiction account for more than half of that estimate.
For people who struggle with substance abuse, their loved ones, and their employers, Pritchard is a living beacon of what is possible through recovery. He shared his story before an audience of West Tennessee businesspeople Friday during a Tennessee Department of Commerce and Jackson Chamber conference on how businesses can fight the opioid crisis.
“I would encourage employers to remember that addiction is a treatable disease,” Pritchard said. “Job termination only compounds the problem and can lead to higher taxes.”
Substance abuse has many underlying factors: genetics, traumatic experiences and access to addictive substances being a few, according to Matt Yancey, Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services deputy commissioner.
Advances in medical science mean there are now more treatment options, and those who have substance abuse issues are more likely to recover, if they can overcome the stigma of treatment and barriers to the resources they need to get better.
This is where employers can help by playing a role in prevention, treatment and recovery, Yancey said.
“Create a culture where employees understand that if they come forward (about an addiction problem), they will receive hope and support, not termination, condemnation and shame,” Pritchard said.
Employers can save up to $2,600 per worker per year by helping employees access substance abuse treatment and recovery rather than firing them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An employee with an opioid use disorder has about $5,600 more in health care costs than an average employee and is up to four times more likely to visit emergency rooms, said Paul Trivette, director of government affairs for Impact Healthcare. But with one year of treatment, their health plan costs return to those of an average employee.
Trivette said he used to have a “hard line and stigma toward those suffering from addiction”; his father died of a drug overdose, and he worked as a police officer for five years.
“I never saw anybody that went through a treatment program and actually got better,” he said. “… (Now) I've seen people get better.”
West Tennessee Healthcare mental health clinician Donald Jordan said employers can be proactive by setting recovery-oriented policies about how their companies deal with substance abuse disorders and talking about them regularly.
Debbie Tate, administrative director of the Administrative Office of the Court, sits on a panel about how employers can navigate the opioid crisis during a Tennessee Chamber presentation at Ayers Auditorium in Jackson, Tenn., on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. (Photo: Stephanie Amador / The Jackson Sun)
Debbie Tate, administrative director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said employers should educate themselves just as her agency is educating judges about the realities of substance abuse and the effectiveness of medication-aided recovery.
Employers can help connect their employees to resources and treatment programs. They can receive free training on how to administer naloxone, a medication used to treat opioid overdose, from their local Tennessee Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists.
Using the available resources and treating addiction “as a disease and not a moral failing” are key to keeping Tennesseans healthy, Yancey said. The opioid epidemic is an “everybody, everything problem.”
“It's not us and them,” Jordan said. “It's not the druggies and the good people. It's us. This is something we're all dealing with together.”
Tennessee Redline is a 24/7 phone line that connects people with treatment resources. Anyone can call or text 1-800-889-9789 for guidance.
For a list of resources available through the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, visit https://www.tn.gov/behavioral-health.html.
Local anti-drug coalitions include volunteers from many backgrounds and professions, from police to medical professionals to local leaders and families. They host drug take-back events to reduce the amount of unneeded, available opioids and other powerful drugs.
Ten people with lived experience of substance abuse provide resources and try to reduce stigma through Tennessee's Lifeline Peer Project. They also create local support and recovery groups.
Regional Overdose Prevention Specialists provide training and education on substance abuse and overdose prevention and distribute naloxone, an overdose prevention drug.
Tennessee has 82 recovery courts that offer treatment to offenders with substance abuse issues in lieu of jail time.
Tennessee's Faith-Based Recovery Network includes nearly 600 churches that are certified as recovery congregations.