Long-Term Opioid Use May Keep Potential Workers Sidelined, Fed Says

(Bloomberg) -- Prolonged opioid prescriptions may be keeping would-be workers on the sidelines, an economic letter from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco suggests.

Researchers David Neumark and Bogdan Savych set out to answer a question that’s hotly debated in economic circles: are opioids a net positive or negative for labor force participation? Some researchers say their use and abuse could be partly responsible for America’s post-recession decline in labor force participation, while others have found that prescriptions can help some people get back to work, possibly thanks to effective pain reduction.

The pair found that opioid use broadly doesn’t seem to have much relationship to disability spell length -- but for people who are still filling prescriptions seven to 12 months after their injury, the impact is big. Their temporary disability durations are more than triple those of similar workers with similar injuries who weren’t prescribed opioids.

That result means that a policy the reduces prescriptions could significantly shorten disability duration if rolled out nationally, the authors suggest. The researchers focused in on lower-back injuries, for which they say long-term opioid use is not usually recommended.

“Our evidence cannot directly address what role opioids play overall in changes in labor force participation,” they wrote in their post, which is based on a study they released earlier this year. Still, they’re “consistent with the effects of opioid prescriptions contributing to lower participation by lengthening the time injured workers remain out of work.”

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