More Oversight Needed for Vets in Pain
Written by Editor   
Thursday, June 25, 2015 08:11 AM
Quick Brief:  22 veterans per day commit suicide. With a 74% budget increase over the past 6 years, Congress want to know what is being done. "It's not money, it's management."


Around 22 veterans commit suicide each day, and Congress wants to know what's being done to save them.

A subcommittee to the House Committee on Veteran Affairs questioned the Department of Veteran's Affairs about the unrelenting tide of soldier suicides and mismanagement of opioid prescriptions. Some representatives suggested the two crises might be intertwined.  "I'm concerned that a potentially deadly mix of opioid use, mental health disorders, and lack of oversight is contributing to our high rate of veteran suicide," said ranking member Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.).

In her opening statement, she cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's description of opioid abuse as "the worst drug addiction epidemic in the country's history."

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office questioned the VA's efforts both to address veterans' mental health problems and to properly oversee prescriptions. The report noted that the VA doesn't have an accurate count of the number of veterans with depression because of "inappropriate coding."

The issue isn't that the VA is ignoring veterans' problems, and certainly the resources are there, said Rep. Phil Roe, MD, (R- Tenn.) who said he's seen the department's budget increase 74% in the last 6 years. "It's not money, it's management."

Chair of the subcommittee Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said there are 10 programs devoted to prescription management and suicide prevention but little communication or coordination among them. 

In trying to rein in one problem the VA may have created another.  Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) said that because of new policies aimed at reducing prescription abuse, some veterans' prescriptions were cut off without notice and without the kind of tapering that patients taking such powerfully addictive drugs require.  Other veterans, who must visit their doctors monthly in order to refill their prescriptions -- another safety provision -- aren't able to get appointments, he said.

O'Rourke, like many committee members, appeared visibly tense as he spoke, as if trying to contain his frustration.  "So they go without or they go with something that they shouldn't have that perhaps they buy on the street," O'Rourke said. "At minimum they're suffering, and in some cases I would connect that suffering to the suicides that we see in El Paso," he added.

Lack of access to mental health care exacerbates this problem, said O'Rourke, who noted a 24% vacancy rate in mental health providers at veteran centers in El Paso, where mental health services for veterans are ranked 157 out of 158.