Shifting Opioid Policy At VA Is Sparking Unrest Among Veterans

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is continuing to scale back opioid prescriptions amid the national epidemic in an effort to curb addiction, but the policy is sparking fear and anger among some veterans.

Veterans Affairs hospitals began weaning veterans off painkillers and limiting the number of prescriptions written for opioids last fall in the wake of spiking overdose death rates linked to the pills across the country. Officials from the VA sent a letter to veterans explaining their policy shift in September, citing mounting evidence showing the dangers of opioids and their toxic interaction with other commonly prescribed medications in VA hospitals like anti-anxiety pills.

Officials with one VA facility in Tennessee say they are receiving roughly 60 complaints a month since the department shifted their stance on opioids, reports WJHL.

Officials at the Mountain Home VA Medical Center in Tennessee say many veterans are fearful cutting opioids will leave them in debilitating pain, with fewer options for treatment.

“They’ve started cutting me back,” Tony Hughes Sr., an army veteran, told WJHL. “It bothers me, because as many years as I’ve put in, they need to take care of me.”

Despite receiving nearly 300 complaints from veterans since October, officials at the Mountain Home VA facility say veterans are beginning to come around to the changes, with many reporting vastly improved quality of life after fully shifting off opioids to a different form of treatment. Dr. David Hecht, chief of staff at Mountain Home VA, said many veterans are finding greater success at managing their symptoms through acupuncture, yoga and mental health services.

“I think there’s a lot of buy in, I think a lot of new understanding of why we’re trying to do this,” Hecht told WJHL. “For the safety of our veterans is really the main reason. Some veterans have been very happy, have said that they’ve never felt better and didn’t realize how much the medications were affecting their daily function.”

A growing chorus of veteran groups are petitioning the government to ease restrictions on federal marijuana policy, arguing medical marijuana can serve as a safe and effective alternative treatment for chronic pain. Veterans who do not find relief in alternatives like acupuncture and yoga are critical the VA would cut back on opioids while access to marijuana through the department is still barred.

The continued classification of marijuana as a dangerous substance like heroin by the Drug Enforcement Agency is leaving veterans at the mercy of their state’s particular pot policy. It is a violation of VA policy to prescribe or even recommend marijuana to a patient, due its status as a schedule 1 drug alongside deadly narcotics.

Texans For Responsible Marijuana Policy, a veterans group, recently launched an effort to legalize medical marijuana in their state and draw attention to the daily struggles facing so many veterans.

“Every day, veterans are prescribed dangerous and addictive pharmaceutical drugs to treat service-related injuries and illnesses,” Kate Cochran Morgan, a veteran Navy FMF hospital corpsman, told KXAN in February. “Many of these drugs cause side effects for which another pill is prescribed. Cannabis can help treat conditions like PTSD and chronic pain, and it has a better safety profile than aspirin. It is unacceptable that veterans are being denied access to this medicine.”

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