When Katie Parkin’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in June, the family was relieved to learn his benefits plan included an opioid management program to help educate members on their pain relief options.

Parkin’s organization — Vancouver Island-based Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort and Conference Centre — offers a similar program, which was made available by its benefits provider in April 2021. The support and education on the dangers of chronic use of opioids is valuable, says the human resources payroll administrator.

She points out that many of the spa’s employees work in physically demanding positions — including housekeeping, maintenance, massage therapy, esthetics — that can result in pain. Often, when these workers visit the doctor, the go-to treatment is opioids, she says, which can have a domino effect on their personal and professional lives.

Read: Empire Life offering opioid management solution to plan members

As Canada navigates the coronavirus pandemic, a shadow epidemic of opioid toxicity deaths is raging alongside it. A report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found emergency department visits for opioid poisonings increased by 16 per cent and hospitalizations by 13 per cent between March and September 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. And data released by Public Health Ontario showed fatal opioid overdoses were up 60 per cent in 2020 — with 2,422 opioid deaths in 2020 compared to 1,516 in 2019.

In the last year and a half, a number of Canadian benefits providers, including Empire Life Insurance Co., iA Financial Group and Manulife have made opioid management solutions available to plan sponsors in a bid to reduce their members’ exposure to these drugs and help steer them toward alternative pain relief.

Read: What is the plan sponsor’s role in mitigating the opioid crisis?

Parkin says one of the first pain relief options offered to patients like her father is, in many cases, opioids. “There wasn’t a restriction on these medications. Ultimately, I think he really appreciated being guided toward more alternative solutions.”

Her father has been using the benefit for a month and is experiencing better pain relief through medical marijuana without the side-effects that can come alongside opioids.

Tigh-Na-Mara’s benefits provider, Empire Life, added the program, which is administered by Express Scripts Canada, to help its plan members get the pain relief they need while promoting safety — limiting their first fill to an initial seven-day supply and ensuring they receive counsel by a pharmacist, says Vanessa Lycos, the benefits provider’s vice-president of group product and marketing. “We know from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that typically acute pain can be treated with a three-day or fewer supply; however, the average fill was 18 days.”

Read: Manulife launches opioid management program, partners with virtual health-care company

When the first fill is limited to seven days, it may treat their acute needs while avoiding risks, she says. According to the Mayo Clinic, after just five days of prescription opioid use, the likelihood that people will develop long-term dependence on these drugs rises steeply. Lycos also cautions that excess or unused drugs lying around the house can lead to misuse or dangerous situations.

Across Express Scripts’ plan member base in Canada, data shows the average number of days’ supply was reduced by 48 per cent since the program was launched, says Lycos. “For those who had their prescriptions reduced to the first amount of seven days, 60 per cent didn’t go back for an increased fill.”

For the last three months, Parkin has been working to communicate the advantages of the offering to her employees. “Benefits, in general, are very overwhelming for the team and they don’t often understand a lot of what is being offered to them, so I think that education is important — especially with features as big as this.”

Read: As substance abuse rises amid pandemic, employers can help