President Trump calls it a national health crisis. He’s talking about opioid drug abuse, and it has hit the American veteran population particularly hard. In fact, opioids have killed more people in a single year than the three combined wars of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a staggering statistic.
Veterans are two times more likely to die from an opioid overdose—accidental or otherwise. These highly addictive painkillers that have taken American drug abuse to a new level. The fact that so many veterans have legitimate opioid prescriptions reflects the high levels of chronic pain they suffer as a result of injuries sustained in wars. Federal reports show that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in particular suffer the highest chronic pain issues.
The opioid crisis is a growing concern. It’s actually an epidemic. In 2016, 64,000 Americans died as a result of opioid use, abuse and overdose. That figure represents an alarming 21 percent increase in deaths since the previous year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By comparison 65,000 Americans died in the three combined wars (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.)
This past Veteran’s Day helped advocates shed light on the growing problem. President Donald created a new White House commission last week. They are recommending making non-opioid alternatives easier for veterans to obtain.
“Our veterans deserve better than empty promises,” said Patrick Kennedy, a member of the new commission. Kennedy is a former Democratic Congressman and also a recovering addict, and he says that lots more funding is needed for medical professional education and treatment centers to kick the problem for good.
The Trump administration plans to name a drug czar to lead the new effort. Last month, the White House’s first nominee, Representative Tom Marino, withdrew his name from consideration after reports leaked that he had once sponsored a bill that made it difficult for the government to further regulate the big pharma makers of opioids.
In March, famed Vietnam veteran and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) sponsored the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act that will help VA physicians understand alternative ways other than opioids to tackle pain. Methods like acupuncture, yoga, cognitive behavioral therapy and biofeedback are being tested.
McCain says the VA needs to understand that overmedication of many drugs—particularly opioids—is responsible for so many suicides in the veteran community. In fact, twenty veterans commit suicide in this country every day. The rate is 21 percent higher than for the non-veteran U.S. adult population, and the veteran deaths account for a staggering 25 percent of all adult deaths from suicide. Yet veterans make up less than 9 percent of the U.S. adult population.
Unfortunately, like so many other bills in the Republican-controlled Congress, the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act effort has stalled in Congress.
In the last 15 years, narcotics prescriptions have increased a whopping 259 percent. The crisis is even worse for veterans who can fuel their addiction by filling the prescription both at the VA hospital and in the community, as prescription systems do not cross-reference each other. The VA does apparently have some state drug monitoring programs in place, but enforcement on a real and meaningful level does not occur.
In a six year period (2005-2011) the military prescription rate for opioids and psychiatric drugs increased by 682 percent. That is 30 times higher than in the civilian population. At that time, one in six veterans was prescribed at least one opioid or psychiatric drug.
Mcain said, “The tragedy of 20 veterans a day dying from suicide is a national scandal.” The senator says we will need the best research to determine key reasons veterans are committing suicide and the links to overmedication of drugs as the cause.
“We have a long way to go to eradicate veteran suicide, but this legislation builds on important efforts to end the tragedy that continues to claim far too many lives far too soon,” McCain explained.
The legislation calls for an official study by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) to determine prevalence of both prescription medications and illegal substances involved in veteran deaths. The bill also requires NAS to delve into issues with states not sharing prescription data between VA, Medicaid and other pharmacies that provide prescriptions. Since March, the VA hospital system has treated 68,000 veterans for opioid addiction, according to Curtis Cashour, spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.