WHEN THE Virginia health commissioner declared the opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency in 2016, the epidemic was wreaking havoc on families and communities across Virginia. Though many communities in the commonwealth responded with exemplary efforts by law enforcement, innovative medical practices and public education, the dimensions of the crisis were still unfolding and the economic impact was growing.
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, more than half of all employers — including millions of small business owners — have been negatively affected by the opioid crisis. Absenteeism, lost earnings and productivity, on-the-job injuries, increased health insurance costs and other secondary effects of the crisis have all contributed to drive up costs for local businesses.
The mounting economic consequences were noted just weeks ago by the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, which informed Congress that the opioid abuse crisis is taking its toll on the nation’s overall economy and labor force participation among prime-age workers.
What has become the worst public health crisis of this generation has caused thousands of able-bodied people in their prime working years to drop out of the labor market altogether.
Without a doubt, opioid abuse and addiction is undermining economic vitality in the commonwealth and Hampton Roads. According to scholars at Old Dominion University, opioid prescription abuse has cost Virginia as much as $7.6 billion in lost productivity and may reduce Virginia’s gross domestic product by almost 2%.
Addressing a crisis of this magnitude requires all community stakeholders to be part of the solution — our medical, educational, and civic leaders, including the business sector, can play a decisive role in addressing the opioid abuse crisis. Those who manage a business know that a thriving economy depends not only on quality products and services but on a labor force that is healthy, unencumbered by addiction, and living in a community where their families are safe and happy.
Because we understand the limits of what law enforcement can do to combat the opioid threat, over the recent past we have engaged with a range of leaders in the community, including the medical and mental health communities, faith-based groups, and families navigating the crisis through its impact on their loved ones. Now we are making a special effort to engage the business community in this campaign of community concern and action.
It is vitally important that employers recognize and understand opioid use disorder is a disease that reaches into all sectors of our community. One in three U.S. workers may have some type substance abuse issue right now. Investing in employee education, resources, and support programs helps increase work productivity and reduces employee turnover and absenteeism.
It is the wise leader who recognizes that it is just smart business management to know more about this crisis, to follow best practices as informed by medical experts, and to be part of a community determined to excel in dealing with this historic challenge.
The Hampton Roads Opioid Working Group and the Hampton Roads chamber invites the business community to a forum hosted by the Slover Library Foundation, at 10 a.m. on Sept. 19 at the Slover Library, in Norfolk.
This forum will focus on the economic impact of the opioid crisis in Hampton Roads and include a discussion of policies and practices that will help improve employee health, safety and productivity, and help small businesses identify resources. The goal will be to point local businesses to specific ways they can improve their bottom line by providing education and access to support for their employees.
When the history of the opioid crisis is written, America’s businesses, with their ingenuity and initiative, will surely be seen as frontline players in the campaign to rid our communities of opioid abuse. From courtrooms to boardrooms, defeating this epidemic will require all of us working together.
G. Zachary Terwilliger is a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Bryan Stephens is president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.