More than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq has caused thousands of veterans nationwide to come home only to become addicted to opioids. What’s worse is that this addiction has been fueled in part by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
Recently, the VA has publicly acknowledged its role in creating this phenomena of opioid-addicted veterans, and has pledged to do whatever they can to help the situation. But as some veterans argue, the VA’s good intentions are coming too late.
Back in the 1990s, the medical world decided that a person’s sense of pain was to be viewed as a fifth vital sign, and doctors were to do whatever they could to keep a patient’s pain under control. The VA quickly followed suit, especially since they were dealing with hundreds of veterans coming back with PTSD from the Gulf War. And once 9/11 happened and America entered into two foreign wars, pain management of any way, shape, or form became a priority for doctors.
Except their pain management came in the form of highly addictive prescription painkillers. This heavy handed prescription writing created a perfect storm of addicted veterans and doctors who were just trying to help.
For perspective, take Fayetteville, N.C. the home to Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the nation. As of April 2016, 47% of all opioid prescriptions were abused in some way, which isn’t at all surprising because they are simply too easy to come by. For many, opioid addiction starts simply with prescribed medications, and considering that 48.5% of all Americans have used at least one prescription drug in the past 30 days, there is no lack of supply.
The problem is not just on military bases, however. Veterans all over the country are explaining to the Wall Street Journal that the VA made it too easy to get prescriptions. Many say they walked in to some doctor’s offices without an appointment and then left a few minutes later with drugs in their hands.
Reports from the VA show an incessant increase in opioid prescriptions between 2000 and 2016. While the results tapered off in 2013 when the VA decided to limit their use, they’re still quite high. The all time high was back in 2013, which just over six million prescriptions; last year, a reported 4.6 million prescriptions were written.
These medications all differ, and while they include the FDA’s approved three main types of medication for opioid dependency of methadone, bupreophine, and naltrexone, some veterans walked away with morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone.
To make matters worse, once they are addicted, there is almost no place for a veteran to go who needs help. The VA has 43 impatient rehab centers across the country with a combined total of 906 beds; however, the wait for admittance are usually longer than 30 days. Plus, lack of staffing has kept many doors shut.
So what is the VA planning on doing for veterans coming from home with PTSD and any other physical injuries? The organization has pledged to use addiction specialists nationwide and utilize more holistic forms of treatment such as acupuncture and yoga. They are also working with the federal court system to prevent veteran first time drug offenders to avoid a jail sentence in lieu of drug rehab programs that work on healing their underlying dependency issues.
Not only that, but they have support from Congress as well. Back in July, President Obama signed a bill into law that requires strict training on opioid prescribing among VA doctors, boosts research on alternative pain-management activities, and requires the VA to focus on their diagnosing and prescription strategies of patients who come in with a substance abuse problem.
Additionally, President-elect Trump has vowed to hold the VA accountable for their over prescription practices. Throughout his campaign, he outlined a four-step nationwide plan that would expand access to treatment facilities and give states an incentive to set up drug courts for offenders.
But one thing is for sure, the VA commits themselves to fix the problems they have caused and will do whatever it takes to heal veterans.
“We owe it to the nation’s veterans to help them end their dependence on opioids,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said earlier in September, “and break the downward spiral that all too often ends in homelessness, prison or suicide.”