Among the many health challenges facing America, none has hit Kentucky harder than opioid addiction. The impact of the opioid crisis on Kentuckians’ health is staggering, with more than 1,400 overdose deaths reported last year. Less obvious, however, is the toll it has taken on the state’s economic growth and development.
In Kentucky, the opioid crisis has contributed to a workforce participation challenge that undermines the competitiveness of existing businesses while creating barriers to new investments. For existing businesses, unfilled vacancies represent lost productivity that makes competing in the regional, national and global economies more difficult. Meanwhile, companies are hesitant to invest in areas where they may not be able to attract and retain the skilled workforce they need to operate efficiently.
The commonwealth has already welcomed $5.8 billion in corporate investments this year, creating 9,500 new jobs for the state. But workforce participation — Kentucky ranks 47th nationwide — continues to decline toward historic lows, decreasing by 10 percent since 2000.
In fact, Kentucky would need to add more than 165,000 people to the workforce to reach the national average participation rate of 62.7 percent, according to the Chamber’s 2017 Workforce Participation Report.
The businesses I’ve talked with throughout the state say drug abuse is a key contributor to the problem. Many people actively looking for work cannot pass the drug tests required for employment. And those who do have jobs are exiting the workforce due to untreated, or undertreated, addictions.
At a time when job openings and investments in Kentucky are reaching record highs, we must provide the healthy, productive workforce needed to grow the economy. To do that, treatment, with the goal of full recovery, must be a top priority for our state.
Since every patient is different, it is critical that health care providers and the public be aware of all evidence-based, Federal Drug Administration approved treatment options. This includes counseling and medication assisted treatments proven to be effective at managing and, hopefully, ending addiction.
Providers must be prepared to develop treatment plans that consider each patient’s individual needs, which may require new education and training. At the same time, patients must have barrier-free access to the treatments they need to recover and return to healthy, productive lives.
When work is not an option, individuals turn to government programs like Medicaid for support. This transition from gainful work to reliance on public assistance is creating a cyclical problem in Kentucky with disastrous, long-term consequences for taxpayers and the economy. Giving patients access to effective addiction treatments with a goal of truly ending their addiction is our best chance at getting people back to work.
Kentucky remains highly dependent on personal income-tax revenue to fund its services and programs. As workforce participation continues to drop, so will the number of individuals paying personal income taxes, leaving the state with less money to operate and exacerbating the state’s existing budgetary challenges.
Addiction is driving people out of the workforce, undermining improvements to Kentucky’s business environment and threatening opportunities for economic growth — a cyclical problem that will only become more difficult to break in the years to come.
Business leaders, health care providers and public officials must work together to address the opioid crisis by ensuring unfettered access to and education around all FDA-approved opioid addiction treatments. Only by getting more individuals on the path to recovery will Kentucky truly thrive and reach its full potential.
Dave Adkisson is president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.