Rx pill bottles Spending on opioid prescriptions fell 27 percent from a peak in 2009. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The opioid epidemic is exacting a terrible human cost on its victims, but it’s not ignoring their employers.

A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that large employers spent $2.6 billion to treat opioid addiction and overdoses in 2016. That’s up eightfold just since 2004—and more than half of that amount went to treat employees’ children.

The study says that “opioid prescription use and spending among people with large employer coverage increased for several years before reaching a peak in 2009,” although since then both the use of and spending on prescription opioids within that particular population has tapered off—falling below where it had been more than 10 years ago.

Related: 3 proactive ways to address the opioid crisis in the workplace

It adds that “[t]he drop-off in opioid prescribing frequency since 2009 is seen across people with diagnoses in all major disease categories, including cancer, but the drop-off is pronounced among people with complications from pregnancy or birth, musculoskeletal conditions, and injuries.”

But that’s not the case for the cost. Says the study, “[T]he cost of treating opioid addiction and overdose—stemming from both prescription and illicit drug use—among people with large employer coverage has increased sharply, rising to $2.6 billion in 2016 from $0.3 billion 12 years earlier, a more than nine-fold increase.”

The Associated Press reports that spending for that particular item cost companies and workers about $26 per enrollee in 2016. Employers may be spending the money, but at least some of the expense gets passed along to workers. The report cites Steve Wojcik of the National Business Group on Health saying that for every $5 increase, employers typically cover $4 and pass $1 to workers.

Employers have been limiting insurance coverage of opioids because of concerns about addiction. The report also finds that spending on opioid prescriptions fell 27 percent from a peak in 2009. Researchers analyzed insurance claims from employers with more than 1,000 workers, of which most are self-insured. That means they assume the financial risk.

The analysis finds that about four out of 10 people addicted to opioids are covered by private health insurance, while Medicaid covers a similar proportion.