Who is to blame for the opioid epidemic? For thousands of vets killed, one reporter says the VA

A Newsweek investigation calls out the Veterans Affairs for neglect.

Credit: Newsweek/ Darren Hauck
Credit: Newsweek/ Darren Hauck

Ninety-one Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. From 2000 to 2015, more than half a million people died from drug overdoses according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And as the epidemic continues to plague the nation, the public is seeking to identify who fueled this U.S. tragedy. Cities — starting with Chicago in 2014 — are suing pharmaceutical companies, for having misled patients on opioids’ potency. Doctors too have blamed themselves for misunderstanding pain and prescribing pills.

And now, reporting from Art Levine published in Newsweek Thursday points to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for overprescribing opioids to veterans. Veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses than the rest of the population.

“In fact, the estimated number of drug deaths in 2016 topped the total number of soldiers killed in the Iraq and Vietnam wars,” Levine wore. “There’s a grim irony in that statistic, because the Department of Veterans Affairs has played a little-discussed role in fueling the opioid epidemic that is killing civilians and veterans alike.”

Prescriptions for opiates spiked by 270 percent over 12 years, according to a 2013 analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Levine’s piece explores how and why veterans were overprescribed opioids.


The biggest problem was that it was hard to even recognize the VA had overprescribed because it didn’t start reporting all patients getting opiates from the VA to state databases until the end of 2015. “This delay would allow those patients to do more doctor-shopping and drug-dealing to and with civilians,” writes Levine. In July 2016, VA pharmacies were finally told to start sharing prescribing records by a federal opioid-use disorder law passed. But by the end of last year, 18 state VA programs still weren’t reporting.

He points out OxyContin, which has come under fire for hiding opioids’ addictive priorities and has recently been removed from one insurer’s covered prescriptions, had given $200,000 to the VA pain management team.

Managing pain exclusively with opioids could kill, but poorly managed pain could also be fetal. When physicians began to roll back prescribing opioids in 2012, veterans who suffered from serious pain weren’t able to get the treatment they needed. About 60 percent of all veterans enrolled and receiving care at the Veterans Health Administration suffer from chronic pain, a much higher rate than in the general population.

Levine spoke to one Marine veteran Robert Rose who cut off from his opioid prescription despite no reported abuse and who required it after having suffered from severe spine, neck, and knee injuries from his military service. “I am going crazy because of the pain and burning up with anger at the VA, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and [the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)] for what they’re doing to so many Americans and veterans,” Rose told Levine.

There’s currently one bill stalled in Congress that looks to prevent overmedication and combat suicide among veterans. The Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act would direct the VA to conduct an independent study on the deaths of all veterans being treated at the VA who died by suicide or from a drug overdose in the last five years. It also requires VA to itemize all prescriptions it receives. Levine isn’t too optimistic at the prospect. “Given the reality of today’s VA and its past failures, that worthy goal seems unlikely achieved anytime soon.”