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Painkiller prescriptions to vets growing at alarming rate

Pain medications, coupled with anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, are increasingly proving to be a lethal combination for veterans who survive the battlefield only to be killed by the drugs prescribed to make them feel better. A number of deaths have been blamed on this overmedication - including multiple anti-psychotic drugs - to returning military personnel. Now the issue of what many would argue is medical malpractice is the subject of media and Congressional scrutiny.

In September, CBS News reported that according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) records, while the number of VA patients has increased by 29 percent in the decade-plus since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, the number of prescriptions has increased by a stunning 259 percent. Opiate prescriptions, specifically for hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone, and methadone, have risen 270 percent in the last dozen years.

A Congressional committee recently heard testimony from widows who blamed their spouses' deaths on the interaction of multiple prescription drugs. A former VA doctor testified that she lost her job because she objected to the number of Schedule II narcotics (shown to be highly addictive) she was expected to prescribe. A number of suicides, according to other family members who have spoken out, resulted from medications their loved ones were taking.

The VA argues that many returning vets are in serious pain, so the medication is warranted. VA officials have stood by their pain management practices. Something all sides can agree on is the lack of resources at VA hospitals. A 2012 study found on average just two physicians for every 100,000 patients at VA pain clinics. At a Mississippi VA hospital, an investigation showed that overwhelmed physicians were writing prescriptions for patients without seeing them.

Another factor is the changing picture of war. Thanks to improved medical care in the field, more soldiers are retuning alive. However, they are living with serious brain injuries and other wounds, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nearly a third of the people treated at VA facilities are suffering from PTSD.

It is unlikely that significant changes are going to be made in a government-run agency as large as the VA any time soon. It therefore falls to family and friends to be vigilant about the medications being prescribed to their loved ones, to step in before it is too late, and, if necessary, to hold people accountable if overprescription has tragic results.

Source: US News & World Report, "Medical Reports, Veterans' Families Suggest VA Is Overmedicating Vets" Elizabeth Flock, Oct. 10, 2013

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