Christina Andrews hearing photo (WEB ONLY)

Christina Andrews, a PhD researcher at the University of South Carolina, testifies before a joint subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives examining the effect of the opioid epidemic on the American workforce. Screenshot

One of the state's foremost opioid misuse researchers testified in front of Congress Thursday on how the opioid epidemic is hurting American businesses.

The opioid epidemic, whose death toll overshadows the toll during the height of the AIDS epidemic, is often framed in the context of loss of life. In South Carolina, 616 people died of opioid overdoses in 2016, about 50 more than the year before.

During Thursday's hearing, however, U.S. representatives heard from University of South Carolina professor and PhD Christina Andrews about how it also is hurting the country's workforce.

Andrews drew a connection between opioid prescriptions and unemployment, saying the epidemic has hurt participation in the workforce.

The number of men of working age who have a job "has reached a historic low," she said. Half of unemployed men between 25 and 54 years old are taking pain medication on a regular basis, a number Andrews called "staggering."

"More prescriptions, more unemployment," she said.

Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Michigan, chairman of one of the subcommittees, pointed to widely accepted policies that allow employees to receive substance abuse treatment. But he also said more needs to be done. 

"We must understand that the federal government must not act as a barrier or tie the hands of employers when it comes to addressing opioid abuse and the workplace," he said. "We should fortify employers’ efforts to help their employees and family members who are affected by this epidemic."

Andrews urged representatives to help expand treatment, calling it "the only realistic way" for businesses to recoup their lost employees. Drug testing is not effective, she said.

"Treatment is the most sensible and evidence-based approach to reduce opioid misuse in the workplace," she said.

She also urged protecting the Affordable Care Act's exchanges and its Medicaid expansion. About one-third of people with an opioid use disorder are insured through either Medicaid or private insurance bought through the Affordable Care Act, she said.

She also advised them to oppose President Donald Trump's order mandating the expansion of health plans that are allowed to bypass coverage rules set by the ACA. 

And she pushed Congress to pass more funding for treatment. Six billion dollars over two years is not enough, she said, when the epidemic is costing employers $26 billion annually in no-shows, turnover and lost productivity.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.