The Veterans Administration's healthcare system is prescribing addictive pain killers at an alarming rate. An increasing number of servicemen and women are suffering from addiction and dying from overdose in record numbers.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the agency charged with helping veterans recover from war, instead, is being accused of masking their pain with potent drugs, feeding addictions and contributing to a fatal overdose rate among VA patients that nearly double the national average.
Vietnam Veteran Morgan Murdock says the VA is quick to handout pain killers. "Personally, it seems everything you get, they want to prescribe you hydrocodone, well, I don't want to take that," says Murdock. Murdock has major concerns about the VA's medical treatment of returning soldiers. Murdock frequents the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Medical Center in Loma Linda. He says, "It can take months to get an appointment and by the time you get in, they try to pacify you, and they don't really listen to your needs or know your history. When you're on your meds you run into people who don't exactly know why you're taking them and that's frightening."
Prescriptions for four opiates, hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine have surged by 270 percent in the past 12 years nationally, according to data obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting from the Freedom of Information Act. The VA is trying to combat the problem, but results vary dramatically across the nation. The numbers are staggering out of Loma Linda. Data on opiate prescriptions written for the past 12 years has increased over 200% with over 7-hundred thousand prescriptions given to our soldiers. Here's a look:
Loma Linda Healthcare System
Prescription Drugs Data 2001-2012
Dr. Harry Haroutunian of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage says there has been a significant increase in the amount of people who come to the Betty Ford center to detox from pain medication. When it comes to the VA, Dr. Harry says, The National Institute on Drug Abuse is doing important work and research in the area of over prescribed medications and that the VA has been establishing some special programs for vets. He says, "Veterans also suffer incredible trauma, post traumatic stress syndrome mixed in with their addiction that complicates their treatment and therapy, we really require a specialized approach."
In 2009, new VA regulations required clinicians to follow an "integrated approach" to helping veterans in pain, including a stronger focus on treating the root causes of pain rather than using powerful narcotics to reduce symptoms. Despite the regulations, VA doctors are prescribing more opiates than ever and the data suggests that adoption of the regulations varies.
Vietnam Veteran Ronnie Imel works as an advocate and believes, "Counseling and education will do more for these veterans than any pill you could ever give them." Imel agrees there's a crisis when it comes to the amount of vets on prescription pills. But, he says that's just a symptom of a bigger problem with the VA. He is hoping with the help of Congressman Raul Ruiz some major changes can be made to make life a little easier and more personal when it comes to veteran's healthcare and benefits. "Veterans don't go into the military asking for benefits they go in because of the Pledge of Allegiance, because they believe in their country, because they want to protect the people in the country," Imel said.
The VA declined to be interviewed about the prescription epidemic. Instead in a written statement to the Center for Investigative Reporting they said, "We are engaged in multiple, ongoing efforts to address prescription drug abuse among Veterans seen in its healthcare system." Here at home Congressman Raul Ruiz is taking an active interest in Veterans' affairs. He hosted a number of Veteran's Summits this summer and is now working to put a Board together to come up with solutions to the most common problems voiced from our local vets.