Substance abuse pervades communities throughout Alaska, and the Kenai Peninsula is no exception. The cost to the state’s economy was estimated at about $1.2 billion in 2010, according to a new report from the McDowell Group research and consulting firm.
The report identifies productivity losses as the most expensive category affecting the state. Lost productivity occurs when individuals do not contribute to the economy through employment earnings or household services like childcare, according to the report.
It is difficult to define the Peninsula’s typical drug user. Behavioral health employees at Central Peninsula Hospital treat all demographics; no family is immune to substance abuse, said Dr. Kristie Sellers, director of behavioral health at the hospital.
“We see folks with drug addictions who are in their 40s and 50s, people who are middle to upper income,” Sellers said, “and we see people who are no older than 18 and have never been employed.”
The hospital has observed some trends and changes among the individuals admitted for treatment. During the past five to 10 years, patients have gotten younger. Local top employers deal with personnel who struggle with alcohol and drug abuse; most of them allow employees who undergo treatment to return to the job.
In 2010, substance abuse resulted in $673.2 million in lost productivity in Alaska, according to McDowell’s report, which separates losses into four categories.
Lost productivity results from premature death, mental or physical impairment, incarceration and time spent in treatment, according to the report.
The average age at which patients are admitted into CPH’s Serenity House, a residential chemical dependency treatment program, has decreased during the past five to 10 years. About two-thirds of the patients are younger than 30, Sellers said.
Also, Serenity House’s client pool currently consists of 60 to 70 percent women. Historically, it has treated more men.
Treating more younger and female patients translates to a trend of people struggling with addiction during the prime of their careers and family-development years, Sellers said.
But not everyone seeks or needs residential treatment. Older individuals are sometimes buffered from the harmful effects of substance abuse due to increased social support and financial resources. So, they do not seek treatment despite severe addiction, Sellers said.
“Simply sorting people by age doesn’t clarify the question (of the typical drug user),” Sellers said, “because we get people who have histories of successful functioning and older people who have battled their entire lives with addiction.”
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated in 2009 that 9.5 percent of Alaska’s population, or 55,700 residents, age 12 and older were dependent on or abusing drugs and alcohol.
An estimated 21,000 Alaskans age 12 and older are dependent upon alcohol, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services’ 2011 scorecard.
Sellers said the estimate of 9.5 percent is likely a close match to the percentile of people struggling with addiction on the Peninsula. Rural communities — villages off the road system, not the Peninsula’s incorporated communities — have extreme problems that inflate the statewide statistics, but the area is representative of the entire state, she said.
Of the estimated 16,951 adults experiencing serious substance abuse disorders 42.8 percent are low-income, according to HHS. The state spent more than $35 million in 2010 providing treatment and recovery services to low-income residents.
That is less than half of the affected population, however. The Peninsula’s top employers deal with employees struggling with addiction. It occurs infrequently, but it does occur.
Frontier Community Services, a non-profit health care provider with its own substance abuse programs, experiences an on-the-job employee working under the influence about once or twice a year, said Executive Director Ken Duff.
An investigation ensues following a complaint, and a human resources employee judges whether or not the person is using substances. A drug test verifies the use, and Frontier then decides whether or not to fire the employee.
If the person is under the influence while working, it is likely they will be fired. If an employee comes to management seeking help, treatment is available and individuals can retain their jobs, Duff said.
“I know for a fact we have staff here that … have gone through treatment — cleaned up and are doing fine — and they’re excellent employees,” he said.
The Kenai Peninsula School District likewise handles issues in a similar fashion. The school district has worked with employees with substance abuse issues on more than one occasion during the past 10 years, said KPBSD spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff.
If an employee seeks help and wants to return to work, that can and has happened, Erkeneff said. Teachers’ health plans cover treatment of mental health conditions and chemical dependency, which includes inpatient and outpatient programs.
Three scenarios can transpire if an employee violates the school’s drug and alcohol policy. First is immediate termination. Second, an employee might refuse help and choose to resign. Third, an employee might request help, and he or she receives a “last-chance offer,” Erkeneff said.
Diminished productivity due to mental or physical impairment from alcohol and drug abuse totaled $174 million, according to the report.
Lost productivity results when employees at a business seek help, but the real loss occurs when such behavior shifts toward criminal activity. Productivity loss due to incarcerations resulting from alcohol or drug use totaled $63.7 million, according to the report.
Frontier requires background checks for all of its employees, so if an individual were charged with a drug crime they would be unable to return to work.
“That’s what eliminates them, because they have a record,” Duff said. “And it’s similar for most social service agencies. That’s state regulation.”
Clients being treated at Serenity House often are legally involved, Sellers said. The criminal aspect of substance abuse causes individuals not only to lose their jobs, it makes them difficult to employ in the future, she said.
“For example, if you’re 22, and you’re working for some business in town and you get a DUI, as a result you lose your job,” she said. “And in the course of the DUI the police search your car and you end up with a felony drug charge. Then, there’s really no place that will hire you, and the young ones have no specialized job skills to being with.”
The Department of Corrections has recognized the lack of resources for prisoners re-entering the community; it is currently working with a group of organizations to address the problem, but the solutions are not so clear.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.