When job applicants fail a pre-employment drug test, there are few local referral options to get them help, local business people say.

Nearly 25 percent of job applicants nationwide fail pre-employment drug tests and local officials estimate at least 1,000 people in Bartholomew County suffer from opioid addiction today, according to statistics shared Wednesday by chamber president Cindy Frey and Jeff Jones, executive lead for the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Bartholomew County. That information was provided during a program Wednesday for 75 local chamber members at Columbus City Hall.

Besides local people already dealing with substance abuse, several thousand more — including those in the workforce — are at high risk for developing addictions because of their relationship with someone who already is addicted, such as a family member or associate, Jones said.

“And we can’t forget that we have 60,000 to 70,000 people in Bartholomew County who are not dependent on opioids and not addicted,” he told the group. “We as a community need to keep people who aren’t addicted from moving into the red zone (of addiction),” he said. “One way to mitigate the problem is to focus on education and prevention.”

Jones, a retired Cummins, Inc. executive, provided business representatives with an overview of the alliance’s progress in the past six months, which includes extensive research, and organizational and planning efforts to prepare for a multi-faceted response by the community that will last into the next few decades.

Chamber members were placed in small groups to share information about how the business community is affected by the opioid crisis and in what ways the private sector can help.

One group reported that large employers in Columbus use staffing services in the initial hiring process, which includes pre-employment drug testing.

Applicants who fail the drug test are told, “Oh, you failed,” but there is no offer to help, or educational process to guide the person into treatment so that he or she becomes eligible for employment, participants said.

While many large employers in Columbus have employee-assistance programs, many smaller ones do not, chamber members told Jones and Fischer. That can mean the difference between being referred to a treatment program or losing a job.

Some insurance companies have implemented procedures to head off problems by sending a nurse practitioner to investigate when an employee gets a second refill of pain medication, chamber members said. The insurance company finds that investigating pain-pill use before an employee gets into an addictive cycle can ward off addiction issues, they said. 

Some employees may consider using family medical leave, upaid time off guaranteed by the federal government in certain circumstances. But most employees can’t afford to support a family or pay for treatment without income coming in, business participants said.

Felony convictions for drug possession or other offenses often result in a potential employee being ineligible to work at a company, chamber members said. Working with the judicial system was suggested to help potential employees who have been through treatment become eligible for a job.

Judge Kelly Benjamin, who leads the alliance’s intervention action team, said that jobs give individuals in recovery a sense of self-worth.

The alliance is in the process of helping establish a drug court in Bartholomew County. That may require the cooperation of employers who would have to agree to allow an employee to participate in drug court monitoring, which could involve some time away from work each week, she said.

The judge also explained that people recovering from addiction cannot put their job or their family first during the recovery process.

“Their recovery has to come first for a period of time,” she said.

Jones also talked about the education aspect of the alliance’s work, which intends to communicate clearly about how lethal opioids are.

“Everyone is very comfortable with pills — for ADHD or arthritis — and then someone hands you an opioid pill and you just swallow it,” Jones said. “The statistics are telling us is that four out of five heroin users transitioned to heroin from pills.”

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.