12/16/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Doing the Wrong Thing for the Right Reasons: VA Overmedicating Vets

In September when I saw the statement “Prescriptions for four opiates – hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine – have surged by 270 percent in the past 12 years,” I thought that was an astonishing statistic. Aaron Glantz, writing for the Center for Investigative Reporting in September, returned to his story this month with this new wrinkle:  “Doctors at the San Francisco VA Medical Center regularly renewed prescriptions for highly addictive narcotic painkillers for veterans they had never seen…” 

Sounds crazy and irresponsible, right?  What happened to the Hippocratic Oath’s “do no harm?”

Here’s what I think happened. From the physician’s side, the tools they have to treat chronic pain and Post Traumatic Stress seem to be limited to pharmaceuticals.  Do they know that there are other ways to deal with PTS?  Sure they do. They read the paper just like you do. The reality is that the VA itself is functioning under a lot of stress: a staggering backlog of paperwork and the volume of patients waiting to be seen in a system that’s bowed under its own bureaucratic weight. The number of trained social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses at the VA doesn’t begin to cover the need. A medical doctor can’t make a referral to someone or something that’s not available.

Now look at it from the point of view of a vet who not only knows he’s in trouble, he’s asked for help only to be told the wait time is anywhere from 30 to 90 days.  Or more. Whether he’s in physical or emotional pain.  What about vets who were medicated while in the combat zone to keep them there?  Same wait time. Same old, same old.  What would you do?  I’d look for relief anywhere I could get it.  In the VA, outside the VA, in the streets, anything I could find to alleviate my pain.

Is the problem with the VA? Yes and no. Veterans suffering physical pain need more than ways to mask that pain. They need treatment way sooner than current wait times.  Looking at the larger picture, it seems to me that dependence on medical doctors to deal with psychological wounds is a strategy doomed to failure. It’s not fair to our vets, and it’s not fair to the physicians either. 

Sure, the bureaucracy of the VA must be held accountable for overprescribing opiates, but we taxpayers need to face the music too. The kind of care and support that all vets need, especially combat vets, doesn’t come cheap, unless you compare it to the real costs to society of squandered human capital, broken lives, addiction, suicide... you know this list as well as I do.

Check out the real life stories in the links above, then call your representatives in government and let them know about this. Do whatever you can to support community-based organizations that help vets. If you know of a great one, let us know at the NVF or call 888.777.4443. We’re a clearing house for that kind of information, serving veterans of all wars and their families. We’re always on the lookout for resources that are local to the population we serve.