Monday, April 24, 2017

Pilot’s death shines light on fight over drug testing

DAYTON, Ohio —  The nation’s largest airline pilots union is fighting a drug testing proposal that safety groups hail as a major advance in the country’s efforts to fight misuse of addictive opioid painkillers.

A Dayton Daily News examination launched after the death of Spirit Airlines Captain Brian Halye revealed that pilots responsible for thousands of airline passengers can go years without a drug or alcohol test, even as testing requirements have increased over the years.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 55,000 pilots at 32 airlines, has cited privacy issues and raised questions about the accuracy and expense of the tests. It also advocates redirecting resources into treatment programs for pilots with chemical dependency problems.

The union’s latest stand is against expanding the U.S. Department of Transportation’s testing program to screen for four opioid drugs, including frequently abused prescription painkillers. The union’s position is contrary to that of the airlines and the National Transportation Safety Board, the investigative body tasked by Congress with making safety recommendations.

“I think the underlying issue is opiate use, misuse and addiction is a huge societal problem in the United States, and unfortunately airline pilots are part of that and are not immune to the problem,” NTSB Chief Medical Officer Mary Pat McKay told the Dayton Daily News.

The union announced its opposition to testing for opioids a week after Halye’s children found him and his wife dead in their Centerville, Ohio, home.

The coroner said it suspects fentanyl — heroin’s much-stronger cousin — is a factor in Halye’s death, and it has been found to be responsible for an increasing number of deaths both locally and nationally.

But even if the Transportation Department includes the four opioids in its drug panel over the union’s concerns, the screen still would not test for fentanyl. McKay told the newspaper that the NTSB would likely be supportive of adding fentanyl to the agency’s panel under certain conditions.

The Air Line Pilots Association has long maintained that random drug screens do little more than destroy the careers of pilots.

“Pilot unions have long engaged in measures both subtly and overtly that would suggest they are not in favor of drug testing,” said Dr. Ashley Nunes, a regulatory analyst with the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. “The idea, essentially, is they are there to do as much for their members as they possibly can. If that helps the traveling public, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, tough luck.”

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, of which the Air Line Pilots Association is the largest member, maintains random testing doesn’t work as a deterrent.

In a briefing paper posted on the website for the group, which bills itself as the “global voice of pilots,” the federation says the workplace quite often “is one of the last places where substance abuse is noticed. Family members, friends and colleagues most often will have noticed the problem during leisure time before it becomes evident in the work environment. At this stage peer intervention programs are an effective means of intervention and prevention as opposed to the problematic substance-use testing programs in the workplace. Testing programs introduced as a reaction to political pressure create the false perception that such testing improves safety,” the paper says.

The FAA in 2002 proposed that employees selected for random drug screens stop performing safety-sensitive work and report to the test site “as soon as possible.”

The Air Line Pilots Association proposed changing the time requirement to “as soon as is practicable,” which triggered debate over how pilots should respond to testing notices from the cockpit.

The FAA denied the union’s proposal, saying pilots shouldn’t be getting advanced warnings through the in-cockpit messaging system, called ACARS.

Another fight ensued in 2010 after the Transportation Department proposed lowering the cut-off threshold for detecting cocaine and amphetamines in initial and confirmatory tests. The union called the proposal “premature and ill-advised” and argued it would increase the risk of false positive tests.

The federal agency implemented the change over the union objection.

The latest proposals, which call for expanding the number of drugs included in testing panels, have also drawn union objections.

The Transportation Department currently tests for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, phencyclidine (PCP) and amphetamines. The department hopes to add four opioid prescription medications — hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxycodone and oxymorphone — for inclusion in its drug-testing panel later this year.

Each of these opioid prescription drugs carry warnings about operating vehicles or machinery because of their psychoactive and sedative effects, according to the NTSB, which supports the change. ”

But in a 23-page response to the government, the Air Line Pilots Association argues the proposal has several flaws. The proposal could violate due process, according to the union, and has “unduly low” testing cut-offs that put compliant pilots at risk. The union says the test should be designed to differentiate between those who use the drug legally and those who abuse drugs.

“People say, well, they don’t have anything to fear if they just produce a prescription for the substance,” said Shawn Pruchnicki, a pharmacist and former Comair pilot who lectures at the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies. “But with these levels being so low, it could very well look like an individual took a dose seven hours before flying.”

The union also maintains random drug screens are “exorbitantly expensive with very little return.”

The airlines, however, see the issue differently.

The “benefits of deterring safety-sensitive employees from taking these four prescription drugs without a legitimate prescription outweighs the costs associated with this proposal,” said Airlines for America, which represents nine carriers including American, United and Southwest.

Original article can be found here:

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