In observance of Veterans Day, Reuters published a story reminding the public how remarkably little has been done to address to rapidly worsening opioid crisis, which has now been blamed for a range of societal ills, including rising male unemployment, cash-strapped foster systems, overtaxed local first responder services - the list goes on.
And one group that has been particularly hard-hit by the crisis is Veterans, who are prescribed opioid painkillers at higher rates compared with the broader population.
Indeed, veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to die from accidental overdoses of the highly addictive painkillers, a rate that reflects high levels of chronic pain among vets, particularly those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to federal data.
U.S. government and healthcare officials have been struggling to stem the epidemic of overdoses, which killed more than 64,000 Americans in the 12 months ending last January alone, a 21 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 65,000 Americans died in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, aside from appointing a commission to propose potential courses of action to address the crisis, and then choosing to follow only one of its recommendations - declaring the opioid epidemic a public health emergency - not much has happened in terms of tangible, concrete action. And even Trump’s declaration fell short of what the committee had actually recommended.
“Our veterans deserve better than polished sound bites and empty promises,” said former Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy, a recovering addict and a member of the president’s opioid commission.
Kennedy said in an e-mail that more funding was needed for treatment facilities and medical professionals to help tackle the problem.
But Trump isn’t the only problem here.
Even if the president decided against unilateral action to address the opioid crisis, Congress is working on a “solution” of its own: A bill that would provide funding for research about effective alternative treatments for pain so doctor’s wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on opioids. Unfortunately, the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act has stalled in the Veterans Affairs’ Committee.
Here’s the abstract of that bill:
This bill requires the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to contract with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to review the deaths of all covered veterans who died by suicide during the last five years, regardless of whether information relating to such deaths has been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A "covered veteran" is any veteran who received VA hospital care or medical services during the five-year period preceding the veteran's death.
And here’s Reuters:
One effort to address the issue has stalled in Congress - the proposed Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act, sponsored by Senator John McCain. That measure is aimed at researching ways to help Veterans Administration doctors rely less on opioids in treating chronic pain.
“The Veterans Administration needs to understand whether overmedication of drugs, such as opioid pain-killers, is a contributing factor in suicide-related deaths,” McCain, one of the nation’s most visible veterans, said in an e-mail on Thursday. He noted that 20 veterans take their lives each day, a suicide rate 21 percent higher than for other U.S. adults.
The VA system has stepped up its efforts to address the crisis, having treated some 68,000 veterans for opioid addiction since March, said Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman Curtis Cashour.
The department’s Louis Stokes VA Center in Cleveland has also begun testing alternative treatments, including acupuncture and yoga, to reduce use of and dependency on the drugs, the VA said.
With Trump desperately fighting to save his tax reform bill, that the White House has other more pressing priorities than the opioid crisis is understandable, if also incredibly cycnical.
But one reason why there hasn’t been much action pertaining to the opioid crisis since inauguration day is because the White House has yet to fill the administration’s “drug czar” position - a post designed by the Nixon administration meant to oversee the nation’s drug-control policies. However, the vacancy isn’t for lack of trying. Last month, the White House nominee, Representative Tom Marino, withdrew from consideration following a report he spearheaded a bill that hurt the government’s ability to crack down on opioid makers.
The lack of a drug czar is a problem. But an even larger obstacle to combating the opioid crisis is the fact that it’s not in the interest of the donor class to do so. The big money - a group in which pharmaceutical companies of course are major players - wants tax reform, the repeal of Obamacare, lower-for-longer interest rates.
And yes, if that sounds like an incredibly swampy scenario, well, you’re not wrong...
Read the full text of the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act: