Autoworkers Union Pushes For Better Opioid Treatment 

By Kelly Burch 07/09/19

"The issue demands that we get involved, and it demands that we set an example of combating it in a positive way," said the union's VP.

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The United Automobile Workers union (UAW), which has nearly 400,000 active members, is making access to addiction treatment a priority in negotiations with the major automotive companies this year. 

"The issue demands that we get involved, and it demands that we set an example of combating it in a positive way—the union and the company," the union’s Vice President Rory Gamble told Automotive News. "We have to grab this thing and address it now.”

Like many people in the industry, Gamble has been touched by addiction. His granddaughter died in January of an opioid overdose. For other workers the connection is even more personal, as long days and assembly-line work lead to injuries that are often treated with opioids. 

Working With The Union

Scott Masi lost his automotive job after he was found sleeping on the job, a complication from opioid use disorder. Now in recovery, Masi works with the union and employers to help them better integrate employees who need treatment. 

"If I was struggling with diabetes and I wasn't getting my medication, and I was sleeping because of that, do you think they would have fired me? No," he said. "I had no recourse to save my job, get the help that I needed or utilize the insurance that I had worked for."

Consultant Pamela Feinberg-Rivkin would like to see automakers be proactive to increase access to treatment for employees. 

"If one or all three of [the automakers] would invest—not only in recovery; they need to have treatment first—but invest in the detox treatment and then a recovery community where they can live and work and receive that long-term care—that's a model that should be created in the state," she said. "Many workers that we have could benefit from having that whole continuum of care.”

Ford's Pilot Program

Ford is leading the way, with an initiative to provide a point-stimulation therapy device that helps people overcome the pain of withdrawal. As part of a pilot program, more than 200 employees and family members will have access to the device. 

"This device is not a miracle, but it is the next best thing," said Todd Dunn, president of a local UAW chapter. "It's a positive, disruptive solution to opioid treatment. I think you're going to see GM, Chrysler, a lot of companies and organizations look at this device as a game changer.” 

Jeremy Milloy, a researcher who has studied American workplaces, said that it’s important that employer health plans offered by automotive makers cover devices like this and other medication-assisted treatment. For too long, he said, the companies' generous health plans contributed to people having easy access to opioids. 

"It's a really obvious time for them to say that policies based on surveillance and stigmatization have failed," he said. "They can't work in a system where the No. 1 most-abused drug is a licit one being prescribed through company health plans.”

Gamble, the union’s vice president, said that the union, employers and employees are all willing to work together to help improve access to treatment. However, it’s a matter of finding an option that works for all parties. 

"I am not against any type of solution that makes sense,” he said. “But when you sit down with a company, you have to craft that where it makes economic sense.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.