Appropriations Vice Chairman Leahy Statement At Hearing On VA Efforts To Prevent And Combat Opioid Over Medication

The opioid epidemic has reached every state – every community – in the country.  It is impacting sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, friends and coworkers.  And it is impacting our veterans and servicemembers. We have for over 16 years of war asked members of the active and reserve components to serve an unprecedented numbers of deployments, leaving too many veterans broken and in pain. 

When we needed these brave men and women to return to battle, it was too easy to prescribe opioids for pain management. That practice has continued when they returned home, where the military and the VA lean far too heavily on opioids to manage pain. 

It is now an all too familiar story.  Over-prescribing opioid medications for chronic pain opens the door to addiction, overdose and suicide risk, which devastate families and communities. According to a 2011 VA study, veterans are twice as likely to die from overdoses than the U.S. civilian population.  Yet we continue to prescribe opioids to veterans and our active duty military at an alarming rate. 

Among veterans, the number of prescriptions written for opioid painkillers increased 77 percent between 2004 and 2012.  Beginning in 2014, the VA took common sense steps to increase patient education, provide alternative therapeutic approaches, and allow VA providers to participate in state prescription drug monitoring programs.  The result has been more than 260,000 fewer patients receiving opioids this year, down from the 2012 peak of nearly 700,000 veterans.  But that still leaves more than 400,000 veterans receiving opioids from VA facilities – this is unacceptable.

By continuing the over-prescription and use of these dangerous and highly addictive drugs, we are creating a unique set of problems and challenges for our Nation’s veterans and our military.  For example, half of all returning veterans suffer chronic pain, and more than 63 percent of those veterans have a mental health diagnosis.  This means that veterans with post-traumatic stress or depression are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, increasing the risks associated with disability, psychological stress and suicide.

And far too often this has tragic consequences.  Mr. Simcakoski, I want to apologize that the system failed your son.   He deserved better. Our veterans deserve better.

Some progress is being made since the Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act last year. But we need to do better for our veterans by investing in treatments to manage their chronic pain other than opioids and helping those who are addicted to opioids. 

I have heard from several Vermont veterans who are having difficulty accessing alternative treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic care or yoga, despite the efforts they and their doctor have made to settle on a non-opioid treatment right for them.  It should not be easier to get a bottle of pills than it is to access the therapy you want close to home.  That is not right.  We also need to do more to ensure both the VA and private practices are communicating with each other about the unique needs of our veterans, so that when a veteran makes use of a program like CHOICE their history of pain management decisions is taken into account. 

I am glad that we are beginning to move the conversation on opioid addiction away from incarceration.  This is an approach I first highlighted during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2008, when the Committee went to Vermont to see how my home state is leading the Nation in addressing this disease as a national health care crisis. 

On the Senate Appropriations Committee, we are working together to provide roughly $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2018 to address the opioid crisis, an increase of more than $137 million above the President’s budget request, $17 million above the House mark, and $41 million above fiscal year 2017 enacted levels.  This subcommittee alone provides $386 million to treat and prevent opioid dependency amongst veterans.

But we clearly have much more to do.  And we cannot continue to fail our veterans and our military.  This hearing is just the next step – it is far from the last one.  Since March, I have been calling for a bipartisan budget deal that would result in more money for this subcommittee to address the needs of our nation’s veterans, including opioid addiction.  I hope we can reach a deal within the week.     

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CONTACT: Jay Tilton – 202-224-2667