In drug testing, you get what you pay for

Are you missing 70% of possible positives?

There are several common errors employers make when implementing a "drug-free workplace program" — not the least of which is looking to save money on their testing procedures.

That can be a big mistake, warns Wes Caldwell, vice president of CHG subsidiary Health Management Group Ltd. (HMGL), and Vanguard Consulting, a wholly owned HMGL subsidiary located in Signal Mountain, TN. (CHG provides substance abuse policy, education, testing and liability insurance services; HMGL manages workplace drug abuse programs.)

"Most employers go out and buy a drug test as cheaply as they can get it; they’re more worried about convenience than anything else," he says. "But many of those tests miss up to 70% of the true positives."

Choosing the best test

In others words, Caldwell says, not all drug tests are created equal. How does an employer know which tests to select? The finest testing available is a "0 Tolerance" test. The term "0 Tolerance" was trademarked by Nashville, TN-based Aegis Laboratories.

"Aegis is the only laboratory certified foren -sic’ by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA)," Caldwell says. (SAMHSA is a unit of the federal Department of Health). "The same batch of urine that produces a 2% positive rate under standard testing will produce a 10% rate under 0 tolerance."

These kinds of tests are the most rigorous and expensive available. The next level of sensitivity is represented by those tests approved by the College of American Pathologists Forensic Urine and Drug Testing. "There are only a few hundred of these," says Caldwell.

Employers should not use a drug test that is not certified by one of these bodies, he stresses.

What do they cost? "Aegis testing is in the $50 to $70 range [per person]," he says. "Standard tests under SAMHSA may be in the $25 to $30 range." Caldwell says it is well worth the investment. In fact, he asserts, "Wellness people need to look at substance abuse policies as the No. 1 health issue in the workplace."

That’s not just because of the threat substance abuse poses to employee health, says Caldwell. An effective policy can mean huge dollar savings, depending on what state you’re in. "In Georgia, for example, you get a 7.5% premium credit on workers’ comp [if you have a drug-free work place program], and in Ohio it’s anywhere from 6% to 20%," he notes.

In all, 12 states have such incentive statutes, Caldwell says. "But this is just the chump change.’ If your drug testing doesn’t reduce your workers’ comp claims by 50%, you’re missing the boat. If you don’t reduce your group health costs by 25%, you’re missing the boat."

You should also see a quantum leap in productivity. Caldwell recalls the story of a Nashville company called PIZ, which began testing a couple of years ago. "At that time they had roughly 100 employees," he says. "About a year ago, the director of marketing at Aegis noticed the testing volume had dropped off, so he called PIZ to see what was going on."

Cause and effect

The reason testing had dropped off was because the company now employed only 50 people — despite the fact that business was up 10% to 20% a year. The reason for the work force reduction? Drug testing. "They can handle the same amount of business with half the people; they never realized what a drain on productivity the users were," Caldwell explains.

In summary, he says, there are four keys to an effective workplace drug abuse program:

1. You have to do drug testing.

2. You must have a written policy statement.

3. Employee education and training must be addressed.

4. You need a strategy for dealing with employees who test positive.

This final point is critical. "Dismissal is not a strategy," says Caldwell. "Not when you’re perhaps talking about 15% to 20% of the work force."

Caldwell is not talking about a 30-day "miracle cure," either. "The employee has to undergo evaluation by a trained substance abuse counselor. Then, he must be monitored on a random basis for at least two years." In other words, he concludes, "there is no short-term answer."

[For more information, contact: Wes Caldwell, Vanguard Consulting, 2510 Dowler Circle, Signal Mountain, TN 37377. Telephone: (423) 842-8341. E-mail: VanguardatCDC.net. For more information, and studies on drug abuse in the workplace, visit the SAMHSA Web site at www.samhsa.gov.]