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UNC Study Links Opioid Crisis To Labor Force Drop

Photo of prescription bottle and pils
Eric Norriss
Flickr Creative Commons

In addition to its harmful impacts on families, the opioid epidemic has hurt the labor force. But a bright spot finds the negative effects on businesses can be reversed in areas with the political appetite for action.

A new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler School of Business found that the opioid epidemic has pulled eligible workers out of the labor pool. Without qualified workers, employers have turned to automation, which could impact communities forever.

"The long term effects for these communities will be very bad, because there will be no jobs anymore for these people, even after they recover," said Elena Simintzi, a Kenan-Flagler assistant professor of finance and co-author of the study.

The study found this particularly true for low-skilled workers, the group of employees most impacted by opioid abuse.

In North Carolina, those impacted by the opioid epidemic are disproportionately without insurance. While only about 10 percent of the state is uninsured, that population accounts for nearly half of the opioid related emergency department visits, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Data on opioid related emergency department visits in North Carolina for April, 2019.
Credit N.C. Department of Health and Human Services
Data on opioid related emergency department visits in North Carolina for April, 2019.

There was a bright spot in the report. In states that passed legislation designed to prevent and reduce prescription opioid misuse, public companies saw an almost immediate share price jump. Study co-author and Kenan-Flagler associate finance professor Paige Ouimet said that was especially true for companies more dependent on labor.

"That's sort of the bright side of this paper, that look it really is having an immediate effect. The market is saying, we can automatically increase the stock price value of these firms, given the fact that we know now we are going to reduce this opioid cost."

North Carolina passed the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act in 2017 and was one of the states to see a positive correlation.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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