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VA Opiate Overdose Rate Almost Double the National Average: Report

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The death rate from opiate overdoses among Veterans Affairs (VA) patients is almost double the national average, according to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Prescriptions for hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine have jumped 270 percent in the past 12 years among VA patients, the report found.

The VA continues to prescribe increasing amounts of opiates to many patients, PBS NewsHour reports. The agency has issued, on average, more than one opiate prescription per patient for the past two years. Experts and advocates told CIR the VA is overmedicating patients as it tries to meet the demand for more complex treatment.

“Giving a prescription, which they know how to do and are trained to do, is almost a default,” said Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired brigadier general who served as commanding general of the Army’s Southeast Regional Medical Command. He added opiates hurt more veterans than they help.

The VA said in a statement it is engaged in multiple, ongoing efforts to address prescription drug abuse among veterans seen in our healthcare system.” Regulations issued by the agency in 2009 required doctors to follow an integrated approach to helping veterans in pain. The regulations call for a stronger focus on treating the causes of pain, instead of using narcotics to reduce symptoms, the article notes.

Adoption of the regulations varies widely across the country. Doctors at a VA hospital in rural southern Oregon prescribed eight times as many opiates per patient as those in the VA hospital in Manhattan, N.Y.

A study published last year found veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder were more than twice as likely to receive opiates compared with veterans without mental health problems. These patients are at greater risk of overdose and suicide.

4 Responses to this article

  1. Avatar of ken
    ken / February 1, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    Just because some seek drugs and use them in the wrong manner does not mean that they should be taken away from everybody. Some Vets have chronic pain and do use opiates and have no problem with them. You can’t use a blanket policy on meds. Every person is different.
    I don’t have a problem with review of meds but to take away needed meds is unfair to the people that due need them. I for one have been on pain meds for 12 years and could not go back to being in total pain everyday. My meds do not give me any side effects and with out them I would not be able to do half of what I can do with them. Until they can stop wars and and stop wounding vets opiates will have to be part of life for some vets…….The other option is a slow and painful death. Or worse…..

  2. Ken Wolski / October 7, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Why won’t the federal government allow clinical trials of medical marijuana for veterans with PTSD? Veterans commit suicide at the rate of 22 a day because PTSD is so poorly managed with traditional pharmaceuticals. Yet marijuana shows great promise in the management of PTSD in trials in Israel, with IDF veterans, and elsewhere.

  3. cheryl / October 4, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Sorry Gail, but that is hogwash. When methadone and suboxone are used appropriately they actually save lives. I believe the attitude of constantly wanting to punish the addict much more deleterious to recovery.

  4. Gail Chmielewski / October 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Just want to comment that the VA’s been putting opiate addicts on methadone in record numbers the last several years. This is no doubt contributing to the deaths! Giving opiate addicts other opiates (methadone or Suboxone will never work and it is becoming quite obvious!

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