Alarming Rate of Opiates Prescribed by VA

Sep 30, 2013

The Department of Veterans Affairs has supplied some veterans, like Tim Fazio, pictured, with a large amount of oxycodone pills since he returning home after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fazio told reporter Aaron Glantz he was never in acute physical pain, but used the pills to blot out feelings of guilt for surviving when many of his friends did not.
Credit Adithya Sambamurthy / The Center for Investigative Reporting
The West Haven VA's opiate prescription rate has increased over ten years, but not as sharply as VA facilities in other parts of the U.S.
Credit The Center for Investigative Reporting
A new interactive map displays data for the VA New England Healthcare System from 2001 to 2012.
Credit The Center for Investigative Reporting

A new report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that since 9/11, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has prescribed opiates at an alarming rate. Between 2001 and 2012, the number of opiate prescriptions has grown 270 percent. CIR says this has contributed to the rate of overdose deaths among veterans that is double the national average.

In Connecticut, the VA healthcare system almost doubled the number of opiod painkillers prescribed in the last eleven years. During that time, West Haven saw more than 647,000 patients, and prescribed over 312,000 opiates. 

Yale Medical School Professor, Dr Robert Kerns directs a pain research center at VA Connecticut and is the VA national director for pain research.  He said the agency is greatly concerned about this problem that he calls a "national public health crisis". But Kerns said this data should be viewed in context with another significant health issue, "Those same percentages of prescribing opiods could be applied to the exponential growth of the proportion of veterans who have chronic pain."   

The opiates analyzed in CIR's report are oxycodone, methadone, hydrocodone, and morphine.

Kerns said opiates are not the first line of painkillers that VA providers will describe. He said since 2008, the  agency has implemented pain management programs and education for its providers systemwide but challenges persist. He said, "There are of course veterans who are potentially harmed by these medications, " and "despite the VA's best efforts to mitigate the risk for those harms, like the private sector, like any person who takes these medications, they're potentially vulnerable to those risks.

Visit the CIR's interactive map showing details of drug prescription rates for the entire U.S., as well as for the New England region, and the West Haven VA. 

More on this story can be heard today on WNPR at 9 am and 7 pm, as we air a special program called "Reveal," a new show produced by PRX and CIR.