Employee Stories: Amber Walton

Amber Walton

Turning a Stance Into Action

How the CEO’s message inspired Amber Walton to find a solution.
Amber Walton
The Hartford’s Chairman and CEO Christopher J. Swift first began talking to employees in 2018 about ways to break down the stigma associated with opioid addiction. By doing so, he opened the door for an employee to help people with their opioid dependence.
 
It’s a topic she has a personal connection to. Her younger brother struggles with addiction.
 
The information Swift shared changed how Walton viewed her brother’s addiction, whose struggle is not with opioids. She learned that addiction is a chronic brain disease, not a choice or a sign of personal weakness.
 
“When someone is addicted to a drug, the brain tells that person they need it to survive,” she says.
 

The Opioid Crisis Impacts All of Us

Opioid addiction has touched the lives of many Americans. During this time in 2018, nearly 1 in 3 people knew someone addicted to opioids.1 The CDC reports a worsening of the drug overdose epidemic since then, with the largest ever number of drug overdoses for a 12-month period – over 81,000 – recorded from June 2019 to May 2020.2
 
Given the prevalence of the problem and The Hartford’s fight against the opioid crisis and the stigma of addiction, Walton was inspired to share her personal story with her colleagues.
 
“It is time for change,” Walton wrote in a blog post on The Hartford’s intranet portal in August 2018. “Too many families face this issue and lose someone close to them. I’m passionate about making a difference and finding new solutions to support and help families and their loved ones with recovery – in hopes that my Mom and other parents never receive that dreaded call.”
 
The reaction to the post was positive, Walton says. “It felt safe to incorporate my personal passion into my work.” At the time, she was leading a network of workers’ compensation providers and says, “I had the knowledge and opportunity to make a difference.”
 

Walton’s Journey Begins

From her brother’s experience, Walton knew that seeking treatment for addiction is very expensive. Without insurance, a 30-day treatment program can cost up to $15,000 to $20,000. Even if insurance covers treatment, it’s typically only for a 30-day inpatient program. “It’s a disease that can’t be solved in 30 days,” she says. “It needs to be treated for the rest of that person’s life.”
 
With encouragement from her manager to pursue a way to help others, Walton immediately began reaching out to colleagues at The Hartford with a variety of expertise to discuss her ideas. She talked with them about her desire to help families get more financial resources and longer treatment times to fight addiction.
 
“Every person I spoke with sent me on a journey to meet with new people at The Hartford and to pitch my idea,” Walton says. “At times, I thought this isn’t going to work. But there were very positive reactions and few naysayers so I believed there was a place for this and that it had value.”
 
Walton never gave up. Eventually her persistence paid off and she met Tarie Summers, director of product management for The Hartford’s Group Benefits voluntary benefits team. 
 
“When I met Tarie and explained what I wanted to do, she quickly started brainstorming with me on ways we could incorporate this into the voluntary benefits product offering,” she said.
 

Walton’s Idea Becomes Reality

In Fall 2020, The Hartford began offering the hospital indemnity plan that Walton and Summers developed as a new benefit during open enrollment that would help cover costs like copays or deductibles as well as everyday costs like housing or groceries for those who are in treatment.
 
“Now with COVID-19 and issues related to mental health and addiction, it is needed more than ever,” Walton says. Although overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC says the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.2
 
As part of the Courageous Conversations initiative at The Hartford, which provides a safe space for open dialogue on challenging topics, Walton had the opportunity to discuss addiction and stigma with Swift and a small group of employees in September 2020, just before the new offering launched.
 
“I shared with him how his platform helped me create this,” Walton says. “I was able to be successful because The Hartford allows people to bring their whole self to work. If I was at another company, I’m not sure I could have done it.”
 
Swift recognizes his role, as CEO, can change the perception of addiction by leading a companywide dialogue.
 
“Because I have talked openly and nonjudgmentally about the opioid crisis and addiction, employees at The Hartford have felt more comfortable talking about these topics as well,” Swift wrote in an op-ed for Fortune magazine, published July 6, 2020.
 
Walton’s brother is currently in recovery and she is hopeful that The Hartford’s new hospital indemnity plan - Behavioral Health and Substance Support Benefits - will help other families.
 
“My sister is a nurse, my husband is an attorney, my mother is remarried to a pharmacist,” Walton says. “We have all the tools and education we need, and it’s still a struggle. How hard would it be for a family who doesn’t have the resources and education my brother is surrounded by? The journey is just so hard. If this helps just one family, it will be worth it.”
 
 
1 American Psychiatric Association, “Nearly One in Three People Know Someone Addicted to Opioids; More than Half of Millennials believe it is Easy to Get Illegal Opioids”
 
2 Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades, “A qualitative assessment of circumstances surrounding drug overdose deaths during early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic”
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