Wespath initiatives address opioid crisis


In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. In 2018, The United Methodist Church’s pension agency began its own work to address the growing epidemic. 

Wespath’s Sustainable Investment Services division joined Investors for Opioid Accountability, a coalition of institutional investors that calls for pharmaceutical companies to adopt or strengthen their practices to mitigate risks related to opioids.

The denomination’s benefits agency started monitoring the issue from an investment perspective as the crisis escalated, according to Nick Abel, Wespath’s manager of Sustainable Investment Services. 

“There’s been a top-down push to stay on top of emerging issues to care for the church and its members,” he said.

As part of Investors for Opioid Accountability, Wespath joins almost 60 other investment groups that oversee $4 trillion in assets — giving that group considerable influence with corporate boards. The group has engaged with 20 companies in the past two years, leading to such “wins” as Rite Aid — the third-largest pharmacy retailer in the U.S. — agreeing to produce a risk report, and Cardinal Health, a leading pharmaceutical distributor, separating the roles of board chair and CEO to improve corporate accountability.

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Fog rolls across the mountains of West Virginia, the state with the highest rate of opioid overdose fatalities per capita. In response to the crisis, United Methodists in the West Virginia Conference began asking: “What if the church got involved?” Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS. 
Learn how United Methodists are offering hope and a chance at recovery through "ministries of connection" in our series, The Church Responds to the Opioid Crisis: The Road to Recovery in West Virginia
“As we started these conversations with different companies, everyone — the pharmacies, the retail distributors, the manufacturers, doctors, insurance companies — was pointing fingers at each other as to who was responsible,” Abel said.

There was also a challenge in confronting the corporate philosophy that the main responsibility is to maximize shareholder returns. 

But Abel said that as opioids have become a national issue, feelings have changed and companies are more responsive. He also noted an understanding that any short-term investment gain is not worth risks to the company’s reputation, potential legal consequences, or the long-term impact the opioid epidemic could have on the workforce and the economy.

“It’s hard for these companies to not recognize they have a role to play in providing a solution. The conversations are getting easier.”

Wespath’s Health and Well-Being division is also addressing the opioid crisis, namely by providing educational resources to raise awareness and also offering recovery resources for plan participants or their families who may be affected by substance use disorder. 

“We have an obligation for good plan stewardship, but there’s general additional care and concern for the people we serve,” said Kelly Wittich, Wespath’s director of Health and Well-Being. “It’s important to us that people have access to what they need to prevent opioid-related issues.”

Much of the awareness raising is done through presentations with United Methodist annual conferences. Wittich said the annual conferences make up 31 of the agency’s 34 health plan sponsors, and the presentations help conference leadership have a better sense of how the opioid crisis may be affecting their members.

She cited several presentations where attendees shared personal stories of how they’ve been impacted, or what someone they know has gone through.

“It reminds you no one is immune from this. It reassured us the efforts we’re putting in place are important,” she said.

In May, Wespath held a webinar on the opioid crisis as part of its “Sifting Through the Facts” webinar series. The webinar featured the Rev. Barry Steiner Ball, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent who heads up the “What If?” initiative for the West Virginia Conference, encouraging churches to get involved in the issue. 

OptumRx, Wespath’s pharmacy benefits manager, maintains rules that align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on prescribing potential high-risk dosages. If an order causes a concern, OptumRx consults with the prescribing doctor to see whether the patient needs such a high dosage. 

As well as educating plan participants about the risks of opioid use, resources like the Employee Assistance Program could point individuals in need to recovery or emotional health services.

“We want to make sure we have the right programs in place to hopefully prevent addiction, but also resources in place for recovery for those who need it,” Wittich said.

Butler is a multimedia producer/editor for United Methodist News Service. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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