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Vets Fight Against Prescription Drugs and Prescribing Doctors

Veterans who have been overprescribed medications are starting to take matters into their own hands.

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By John Lavitt

08/22/14

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Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting a new battle on the homefront against prescription drug addiction, as many VA doctors seem all-too-willing to prescribe away their pain and struggles.

On average, servicemen and women are prescribed narcotic painkillers three times more often than their civilian counterparts. Given the trauma experienced overseas, this figure does not seem all that surprising. Despite the chronic pain and the nightmare of PTSD, many veterans are choosing to stop taking the pills against the medical advice of their doctors.

After serving in the Air Force for 15 years, Nancy Bryant found herself plagued by a storm of prescription medications: Cymbalta, Maxalt, Trazodone, Tizanidine, Dicyclomine, Hydrocodone, and more. During a bout with the stomach flu at the beginning of the year, Bryant couldn’t keep any food or medications down. She was shocked to realize how different she felt when the drugs began clearing her system.

After feeling a sense of freedom from prescription drugs, Bryant decided to quit on her own. As she told NPR in a recent story, “I just scrape my name off all the pill bottles and throw them all away…After a few days of that—those medications clearing my system—I just realized, wow, I felt like a totally different person," she said.

Many civilian doctors are not surprised when veterans make such choices on their own after being subject to the VA overprescribing and misprescribing drugs. Dr. Richard Friedman, director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College commented on this dangerous approach by the VA.

"They're using psych drugs off label—way, way, way off label," he said. "Obviously, they are not using them to treat the major disorders for which these drugs are designed…They were in a different situation, where they had unprecedented levels of stress in a group of otherwise healthy people…I think they resorted to psychopharmacology as a means to keep people in active duty."

Although the Pentagon has claimed to have instituted safeguards to prevent overprescribing and off-label usage of pharmaceutical drugs, a study by the Institute of Medicine concluded that the VA and the Pentagon has done a poor job tracking what happens when they treat PTSD with drugs. As the head of the Opioid Safety Initiative at the VA, Gavin West said, "We've undertaken a psychopharmacologic safety initiative, where we're looking across the board at more safe and more effective use of medications."

Given the conflicting information, freedom to decide their pharmaceutical fate should be in the hands of the veterans. Until the VA stops trying to prescribe away the traumatic consequences of the recent wars, servicemen and women need to be supported in their efforts to find their own path to long-term recovery and happiness.

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