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Agencies Are Cracking Down on Employees' Opioid Use, Both Legal and Illegal

At least one agency is testing the fitness of employees with legal opioid prescriptions.

Several agencies in the Homeland Security Department are instituting new policies to oversee their employees’ use of opioids, even when it comes in the form of a legal prescription. 

Generally speaking, employees at Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration and Secret Service are rarely caught using opioids illegally. In more than 100,000 random drug tests of employees at those components between 2015 and 2018, just 31 returned positive results, according to a report from the DHS inspector general. The agencies took appropriate disciplinary action in each case, as most were fired or resigned before they could be. 

The results do not paint the full picture, however, as the IG noted that medical review officers at laboratories that handle drug tests do not report positive test results to agencies if workers can document a prescription or other valid medical explanation for the positive result.  

That policy is now starting to change. ICE has started requiring labs to notify them even when the positive result stems from a legal prescription and, per the IG’s recommendation, Secret Service is looking to move in a similar direction by early next year. TSA, meanwhile, is requiring employees with legal opioid prescriptions to take a “fitness for duty” test. 

All of the agencies have implemented or are in the process of implementing such evaluations. The policies will enable the components to ensure their workforces are “capable of effectively performing their duties,” the IG said, while providing consistent standards that allow employees to use legally prescribed medications. All but CBP have penalties in place for employees who are impaired on the job due to legally prescribed opioids, and CBP said it is updating its policy on that front. 

ICE, TSA and Secret Service “have taken steps to clarify expectations that prescription drug use affecting employees’ work performance will not be tolerated.” 

Agencies are navigating difficult terrain, the IG said, as they must “balance the rights of employees to use legally prescribed opioids with their obligation to ensure their workforce is alert, responsible and effective.”

The number of employees testing positive for illicit opioids—meaning they had no prescription—increased sharply in 2018, though it remained a tiny fraction of the DHS workforce. Zero employees saw positive results in fiscal 2015, but in a similar number of tests performed in fiscal 2018,18 employees tested positive for illicit opioid use. 

Earlier this year, the Labor Department said federal employees receiving workers’ compensation benefits will be limited to opioid prescriptions in seven-day increments, up to 28 days. Under the new policy, all subsequent opioid prescriptions must come with a letter of medical need, which would authorize two additional 30-day supplies of the painkiller. The policy still only applies to new patients with acute issues, not those with chronic conditions. The U.S. Postal Service has particularly struggled to reduce the use of opioids among its employees receiving workers’ compensation.