Veterans and America’s Opioid Epidemic

Happy Veteran’s Day.  Today we remember those who served.  Freedom in America, a right often taken for granted, has never been free.  Americans can enjoy it today because many men and women have fought to secure it.  Yet these same people who risk their lives for America’s freedom often return home physically, mentally, and emotionally impacted forever.  Considering the sacrifice made by veterans, regardless of branch, rank, or role, America must do more to provide help and support when their service is over.

The country is in the midst of an opioid epidemic.  The causes are countless and complex, and probably the topic of a different article, but the impact has disproportionately affected veterans.  In fact, Reuters reported that “opioid drug abuse has killed more Americans than the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam wars combined.”  The article also cites that “20 veterans take their lives each day, a suicide rate 21 percent higher than for other U.S. adults.”  Some argue that opioid abuse is a factor in these deaths, but more research is necessary.


One bill that may address these issues, but has stalled in Congress, is the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act.  It is legislation sponsored by one of America’s most respected veterans, John McCain.  The legislation aims to prevent overmedication of opiates and to combat suicide deaths.  If enacted, the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) would be required to conduct an independent expert study on deaths of all veterans treated at the VA who died from suicide or a drug overdose within the past 5 years.  There needs to be a better understanding of the nexus between suicides, overdoses, and prescription medication.

Alternatives to opioids must also be considered.  There are too many stories of veterans taking prescribed medication for chronic pain, becoming addicted, and then having to turn to street heroin and crime to fuel their addiction.  A catalyst to this downward spiral is cutting patients off “cold turkey” once they start exhibiting signs of dependence on painkillers.  The undercurrent not readily visible is the fact many veteran patients may be using opioids to self-medicate for more than physical pain.  Patients take them to help with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, and other mental health conditions.  Given the dangerously addictive nature of opioids, prescriptions must be reduced and alternatives sought.

Many alternatives for pain management already exist.  The list includes non-addictive painkillers including ibuprofen and acetaminophen (brand names: Tylenol, Advil, Motrin), antidepressants, and other forms of therapy.  The VA offers acupuncture, occupational therapy, and they have even started promoting yoga, meditation, and other forms of relaxation.  While none of these treatments have the immediate effect that patients experience from opioids, they also do not have the devastating consequences either.  A balance could and should be struck between painkillers and alternative therapies.

America must do more for its veterans in chronic pain.  Opioid prescriptions should be limited, and when they are issued, doses should be capped (many doctors recommend caps of 50 mg of morphine or its equivalent per day).  Patients prescribed these drugs should be logged and monitored closely.  The federal government also has an obligation.  Passing some form of the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act would help, but the Trump administration also needs to take charge.  President Trump should appoint a drug czar sooner rather than later, and this time, hopefully he selects someone who did not champion a bill impeding federal agents from pursuing big pharmaceutical companies who flooded the country with opioids.  See the 60 Minutes episode on Tom Marino (R-PA Congressman) to learn more.

America’s opioid problem will not be solved today.  But on this Veteran’s Day, we should do more than remember those who served.  We should be cognizant that many of the victims of America’s current opioid epidemic are veterans.  It is an injustice to those who sacrificed for our freedom to permit this epidemic to continue unchecked.  For freedom isn’t free and it comes at a cost.  Veterans should not have to bear that cost alone.

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