When Roger Krone and his wife had dinner with a former Georgia Institute of Technology classmate and his wife, they didn’t know their longtime friends’ son was struggling with an opioid addiction — until he succumbed to an overdose two weeks later.
Krone, the chairman and CEO of Leidos, got word when he was preparing his notes for his involvement in a Washington Post Live event “Addiction in America: A Nation Responds” in October 2017. The night before the event, he received an email from the wife of his friend of more than 40 years.
As Krone scrolled down the email, he read six shocking words: “Our son died two weeks ago.”
“We were at their house for dinner maybe three weeks earlier,” Krone said.
The couples talked all night at dinner, but word of their son’s addiction never came up. Krone said his addiction story is not different from many others — his friend’s son had a sports injury, was connected to Oxycontin, fell in and out of addiction and treatment. He was in remission and going to school out-of-state when he picked up fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine. It only takes a 3-milligram dose of fentanyl to kill an average-sized adult male.
“Addiction changes you permanently,” Krone said. “If you’re an alcoholic, you’re an alcoholic for life. And that’s the way this crisis is.”
On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the number of overdose deaths involving opioids was six times higher in 2017 than in 1999.
But unfortunately, this incident wasn’t Krone’s introduction to the epidemic.
As the CEO working for about 32,000 employees, Krone gets many emails — from cafeteria food comments to complaints about the new parking payment application. But in early 2017, one particular email stood out.
“I get an email from a fellow named John Hindman who supports the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for [the Energy Department],” Krone said. “The line was ‘A Father’s Request.’ Usually, it’s a paragraph, like I said, a complaint. This was about three pages.”
This was a tough email for Krone to read. Hindman narrated the story of his son, the journey he was on that eventually ended with a fatal overdose at age 30. But Hindman wasn’t just sharing this tragic story — he was asking for action.
About one-third of Leidos’ business is in health care and health care IT. In his email, Hindman referenced this, asking if Leidos is a health care company, what is it doing about the opioid epidemic?
And the follow-up question Krone had was: what opioid epidemic?
“I had never heard of this. What’s this about?” Krone asked at the time. “This was three years ago. Nobody talked about it then.”
Krone and Melissa Koskovich, Leidos’s senior vice president for communications and marketing, began pulling from its sources — researching on the internet, talking to Leidos’ health care group and exploring the epidemic on the Health and Human Services Department’s website. They realized the numbers were staggering. Even among all the opioid-related deaths that year, it wasn’t talked about enough.
And as Krone continued his research, realizing the problem was much bigger than he even imagined, he decided it was time to act.
“So, we contact John and start talking to him, and we start thinking about what we can do,” Krone said. He begins at company town halls and employee meetings, discussing the epidemic and kicking off an opioid initiative.
And at almost every town hall, somebody approached Krone when he left the mic to share their own personal story of a family member suffering from this addiction.
He met Roxanne Wood, another Leidos employee who lost her eldest son to a prescription painkiller addiction that led to a fatal overdose when he was 32, after a cycle of rehabilitation and relapses. In fact, many of the stories Krone heard began with prescription medication. And often, because users reach a maintenance level of intake and can function normally, it’s hard to even know.
Many times, it starts with a sports injury or surgery.
“Usually, it’s a painkiller for surgically induced pain, and the story is the same. They were told by their doctors [it’s] not habit-forming, and it turns out that’s not true. There’s a lot of history and stories here . . . and it just starts building,” Krone said.
Building the Program
After numerous discussions, outreach initiatives, resource building and education, Krone and his team at Leidos decided to break its opioid epidemic program out into three phases: awareness, prevention and treatment.
Through the awareness process, Krone met with the director of health and human services for Anne Arundel County to learn about the epidemic at a local level. He also kicked off internal company initiatives with employees and awareness events with customers.
Leidos held a community awareness safe disposal event in April 2018 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, in partnership with Maryland’s Opioid Operational Command Center.
“The incidents of getting addicted and the deaths are higher among active military and retirees, and retirees are disproportionately affected, 10 to 15 percentage points higher,” Krone explained. Carrying a 40-pound military rucksack can result in skeletal issues, surgeries and an overprescription of Oxycodone, for example.
Krone also spoke at the Chamber of Commerce’s forum, “Combating the Opioid Crisis: From Communities to the Capital,” in March 2018. And prior, The Washington Post Live event in 2017 previously mentioned was part of Leidos’ commitment to spreading awareness. Leidos also sponsors The Chris Atwood Foundation, a nonprofit in Northern Virginia dedicated to saving lives from opioid overdose and supporting recovery from addiction.
Krone is also passionate about bringing awareness to the medication that reverses opioid overdoses.
“What makes this even more tragic is there is actually an antidote. If you find someone who has succumbed to opioid overdose, if you can get them Naloxone or Narcan within a couple hours, it is [bringing]Lazarus back from the dead,” Krone said.
These medications aren’t permanent, but they are available as aspirators or can be applied surgically. Still, not everyone witnessing an overdose has the medication accessible, knows it exists or finds the user in time.
But as part of its partnership with the Chris Atwood Foundation, Leidos financially supports the foundation’s distribution of Narcan to those who take its training.
“This was just one of the initiatives that we took that said, ‘Let’s get as much Narcan out in the world as we can,’” Krone said.
But the antidote is just a Band-Aid. By the time Narcan must be administered, the user is already addicted. And this can be problematic, too, because the Narcan is so effective some first responders won’t go back to the same person multiple days in a row.
“So many people abuse it,” Krone explained.
And Leidos isn’t just helping with awareness locally. The company worked with the Wahlberg brothers and their production company Wahl St. Productions on the film “The Circle Of Addiction: A Different Kind of Tears.” Leidos provided financially to the production of the film, which shows the challenges those with this disease face, and the hope of recovery.
“It is a scarily real depiction of what people go through, and how you get involved in this,” Krone said.
Leidos also partners with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Community Anti-Drug Coalition and with the Truth Initiative.
“We try to find people of like minds who will take this message and drive it home,” Krone said.
Getting Back to Basics
As Krone discussed, becoming addicted to painkillers and opioids often begins with being overprescribed.
“One of the problems with this epidemic is for years, Oxycodone was overprescribed, and so most people in America have unused Oxycodone in their medicine cabinet,” he said. “It used to be the No. 1 reason that people broke in was jewelry and petty cash. Now, people break in, and they go straight to your medicine cabinet.”
Most patients recovering from surgery don’t need, or use, their 80-pill prescriptions, and each pill is worth more at street value.
To address this problem, Leidos makes and distributes take-back bags. Pharmacies won’t take back unused prescription medications, and the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t want people flushing them down the toilet as they are bad for the environment.
“We have sponsored a bag you can pour your unused drugs in and add water, and it neutralizes it. You can Ziplock it, and you can throw it away. We distribute these kinds of bags at all of our sites,” Krone said, including its trade shows and booths at various events.
And internally, Leidos changed its medical reimbursement plan. Previously, for example, if a doctor prescribed a month’s prescription of Oxycontin, the administers of Leidos’ medical plan providers would reimburse the policyholder. That’s no longer the case.
“We will not allow under insurance for the doctor to fill more than a week at a time,” Krone said. That’s because the probability of becoming addicted after being on a medicine like Oxycodone for 10 days increases significantly.
So, policyholders are reimbursed for seven to 10 days, but then must get another prescription from the doctor to continue.
“It’s not that we wouldn’t do it for a month. We’re just going to do it in increments,” Krone said.
The company found that before the policy changed, about 80% of prescriptions were for more than 10 days. Now, only about 20% of the prescriptions are renewed.
“What that told us was . . . something like 60% of the prescriptions were overprescribed,” Krone said.
Hopefully, this reduces the amount of medicine cabinets full of unused prescription painkillers.
This change also provided other insight.
“There are things that a company can do, in all three phases of the program, and so we thought, ‘I wonder how many other CEOs were like me, and didn’t really understand what this was, and didn’t understand there were some things that they could do about it,” Krone said.
The CEO Pledge
Leidos created the CEO Pledge to bring awareness to other executives in the industry about the opioid epidemic so they can acknowledge it is an issue and learn about the things they can do to help. Essentially, they take a pledge to create a safe environment and participate in the three phases of the program.
“I wanted them to be aware. I wanted them not to have to wait until they got an email from one of their employees about the tragedy of losing a child or a relative,” Krone said. He started by reaching out to those in his rolodex and network.
“We got a great response, really an overwhelming response from the people that I had a relationship with,” Krone said. “Then, we said, OK, well, why don’t we just send it to the Fortune 500s?’” So, they did, and received good responses from them too.
And what Krone tells these industry executives is, “you either know you have a problem, or you don’t know you have a problem. But you have a problem.” The statistics are such that most likely, every company in America is somehow affected by the opioid epidemic.
Krone also tells them there is so much more they can do, and by making a visible commitment, a single CEO is sending the message to the company this is important, and that “we’re going to do appropriate things as leaders of the company to make this a safe place for our employees.”
Rather than trying to regulate or federally fund a way to the cure, CEOs can start with awareness.
“What I like about corporate America is we can do things quick. We can move fast,” Krone added. Legislative processes can move slow, and industry can move faster — and companies have the money to do so.
The pledge has more than 50 CEO signatures to date, and the plan is to eventually take all the pledges and signatures to the White House.
“On this issue, [President Donald Trump] has been single-minded. Both the president and the first lady, who we have interacted with, are 100% behind this. They really want to know what we’re doing, and what are the opportunities to do more. We’ve been really pleased with this, and we’re going to eventually wrap this up and send it up to the Hill,” Krone said.
The CEO Pledge also keeps the dialogue going, so that helping to fight the opioid epidemic doesn’t become “the flavor of the week.”
“Our hope is that we’ll continue to see strong support both from the administration and Congress, that appropriate dollars continue to be allocated to the three aspects of the program that we see, again, continued awareness, prevention and treatment. And that there’s legislation around the distribution of opioids, and that we use legislation to make sure that these medicines are used in the appropriate way,” Krone said.
Fighting the Stigma
At times, simply knowing the opioid epidemic is prevalent in one’s community or company, or even in one’s family, is stifled by the stigma.
Perhaps the son of Krone’s longtime friends and his addiction weren’t discussed at dinner because of the negative perceptions that linger around drug abuse.
“It’s just not the kind of conversation you have when you invite old friends over for dinner. It just has such a negative connotation to it,” Krone said.
Getting rid of that stigma so people can talk about this problem and spread awareness of it is an extension of the many opioid epidemic-related initiatives Krone and Leidos are spearheading.
“By me talking about it inside the company and being out on our Intranet and talking about it at town halls, gosh, if I can talk about it, then maybe you can talk to your family about it, and so on. You can ask the hard questions like, ‘Are you having trouble?’” Krone said.
And for Krone, the response from employees, especially from those experiencing some form of the opioid epidemic first-hand, has been touching. People have approached him expressing they didn’t know the company cared, considering it’s such a personal problem. And it’s not for recognition, but for the cause itself, and for Leidos’ employees.
“We have 32,000 employees, and they have brothers and sisters, and they have kids, and they’re in the community. The multiplier effect, if we have 32,000 people who are more aware of this as an issue, and they tell people they know, and they tell people they know, now we’re reaching millions,” Krone said. And if every CEO does the same, it can cause a wave of change.
“We got to get it out of the dark where people realize this happens.”
The Road to Recovery
“I would love to be able to tell you we’re making a big dent in this, and the numbers are changing. I’d love to tell you that,” Krone said, “but the only thing I can tell you is they’re not growing exponentially anymore.”
He said the numbers are blind to socioeconomics. It is not strictly a city problem or suburb problem — it’s just a problem. Krone has seen the distribution heat maps for his home county in Anne Arundel, which include street fentanyl distribution, and a yellow dot indicating a non-fatal overdose was visible in his neighborhood.
“The good news is, the numbers aren’t going up. The bad news is, they’re not going down as fast as you would think, especially given the publicity that I think a lot of people have brought to the problem,” he said. That kind of change requires treating the addiction itself and the support systems and programs around addiction, and working to stop the illegal incoming of fatal drugs like fentanyl into the country.
The Fight of the Future
What started as an email from a passionate employee turned into a companywide initiative — which, as Krone said, is how most transformational and charitable activities start, with people. And being a people-oriented company with basic values around supporting individuals and empowerment, creating a safe environment and spreading awareness of this epidemic aligns with the company’s views.
And Leidos isn’t done. Its presence expands across the country and worldwide, and Krone plans to extend the company’s opioid epidemic initiatives from the national capital region to other cities heavily impacted — like Orlando, Florida; Houston, Denver and St. Louis.
“We have a great creative public affairs team, and we’re always looking for things that we can do that fall into those three categories of awareness, prevention, and treatment,” Krone said.
In fact, this initiative has become part of Leidos’ infrastructure, because as long as there is a demand for opioids, somebody will find a way to sell it. The epidemic is inching its way up to be the largest discretionary killer of people in America, targeting the nation’s future generations of leaders and influencers. And even if a CEO doesn’t sign the pledge, the 10 or so minutes of talking about the issue itself is well worth it to Krone.
“We’ll continue to bang the drum and to work with community organizations and government to keep it in front of people forever and ever and ever,” he said.