VA Calls For Review Of Opioid Policies for At-Risk Veterans

By Kelly Burch 08/09/17

A new report found that a lack of communication and inconsistent guidelines may be putting veterans at a higher risk of overdose. 

a veteran saluting an American flag

The Department of Veterans Affairs has released a report calling for changes in how opioids are prescribed to at-risk veterans, particularly those with chronic pain and co-occurring mental health issues, focusing on better communication between VA healthcare providers and doctors outside the VA system. 

“Veterans receiving opioid prescriptions from VA-referred clinical settings may be at greater risk for overdose and other harm because medication information is not being consistently shared,” said Michael J. Missal, Inspector General of the VA said in a press release issued with the report. “That has to change. Healthcare providers serving veterans should be following consistent guidelines for prescribing opioids and sharing information that ensures quality care for high-risk veterans.”

The report points out that veterans are more likely to die of an overdose than members of the general population. Vets are also at increased risk for chronic pain and psychological issues. 

Beginning in 2014 the VA tried to address opioid abuse among veterans by allowing VA providers to use state drug monitoring systems and developing the Opioid Safety Initiative, a toolkit that outlines patient education, alternative management for chronic pain and the need for open dialogue between providers and veterans. 

At the same time the VA has expanded its programs to allow veterans to get medical care in the general community, rather than waiting to be seen at a VA clinic. While this has improved care options for veterans, the report showed that there is “fragmented communication” between VA and non-VA providers, and that can increase the risks that veterans misuse opioids. 

“We noted that non-VA providers do not consistently have access to critical health care information regarding veterans they are treating,” the report authors wrote. 

The report makes recommendations to overcome this, including having non-VA providers route prescriptions through VA pharmacies so that the prescriptions become part of the veteran’s medical record at the VA. 

However, some people worry that the added layers of scrutiny will harm veterans who are dealing with chronic pain issues. 

"We also want to point out that the increased focus on addiction is, in some cases, hurting veterans who suffer with chronic pain and have been on long-term narcotic-based pain relievers," Louis J. Celli Jr., veterans' affairs and rehabilitation division director at the American Legion, told Stars and Stripes. "For some patients, lifelong pain management through prescription medications is all they have that allows them to function. For some, removing these medications can lead to depression, decreased ability to care for themselves, and, in some cases, suicide."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Kelly Burch Contrib.jpg

Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.