Veterans suffering from substance abuse need VA’s help

First Posted: 10:35 pm - September 17th, 2015

By Thomas Crisp - Contributing Columnist

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The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to more advanced body armor, saving the lives of thousands of soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen. These advances in equipment, though lifesaving, mean that troops survive with devastating injuries such as limb amputations and traumatic brain injury that require advanced, coordinated treatment.

According to a May 2014 Inspector General study of the Department of Veterans Affairs and its opioid dispensing methods, more than 50 percent of the veteran population experience chronic pain as well as other contributing factors such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

More than two out of 10 veterans with PTSD also have a substance abuse disorder making it more difficult for doctors to prescribe opioid medication for their chronic pain. Veterans are not alone in experiencing substance abuse, especially when it comes to prescription drug abuse.

From 2001 to 2013, 2.5 times as many people died due to an opioid drug overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

To combat a growing number of accidental overdoses, suicides, and prescription drug abuse, the VA unveiled the Opioid Safety Initiative in 2013. In theory, the initiative promotes alternative methods of pain control, such as acupuncture and chiropractic care, while reducing the dosages and prescriptions for opioid medications.

This coincided with a national campaign outside the VA to curb prescription drug abuse. The Drug Enforcement Agency expanded its regulatory authority and tightened the prescribing guidelines on several commonly utilized opioid medications such as hydrocodone.

Instead of gradually weaning off veterans who had been on a steady dosage of opioids for several months and even years, patients were abruptly cut off, leaving users in a miserable lurch.

Even after the acute physical withdrawal symptoms have passed, depression and anxiety can worsen due to the change in brain chemistry that occurs with a reduced dosage of opioids. This side effect is particularly troubling in veterans already struggling with anxiety and depression as symptoms of PTSD.

In both the VA and private healthcare sector, the war against prescription drug abuse has mostly impacted chronic pain patients who rely on opioid medications for a higher quality of life. Increased DEA regulatory authority has led to large pharmacies adopting stricter guidelines that leave civilian pain patients in a similar bind.

The initiative to curb prescription drug abuse, though well-meaning, has placed an even greater burden on the already-strapped mental health services available through the VA. In 2013, the VA launched a major recruiting effort to add over 1,600 mental health professionals nationwide.

With a steady amount of veteran suicides each day, many would argue that the VA mental health care system still lags far behind the overall veteran need.

The answer to these devastating healthcare issues is not more knee-jerk mandates or restrictions, but to increase veteran access to mental health services, alternative therapies, and interventional pain management options immediately.

Problematic institutions

Many of the nation’s largest for-profit college chains have seen enrollments plummet amid investigations into questionable job placement rates and deceptive marketing practices. One crucial source of revenue, however, has remained a constant: military veterans.

The new GI Bill, the most generous veteran education benefit in U.S. history, covers 36 months of tuition at any public school or just over $21,000 a year at private institutions, as well as providing an ample housing allowance.

It was a godsend to for-profit colleges, which had been struggling to comply with a federal student aid regulation known as the 90/10 rule. The rule ensures that schools do not operate solely on federal financial aid.

By 2008, meeting the 90/10 rule was becoming more difficult as students found it harder to secure private loans amid a dismal economy. Because veterans’ benefits are not counted as federal dollars in the equation, the bill offered a lifeline to schools that came dangerously close to violating the rule.

Though the VA administers the GI Bill, state-run veterans’ agencies decide whether to revoke a school’s ability to collect GI Bill money.

Veterans left hanging when schools close have few options. Unlike students with federal loans, who can have their debt erased after a school shutdown, the GI Bill benefits simply vanish when their 36 months of tuition run out.

ITT is the latest test for state and federal authorities. A separate civil lawsuit filed by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year alleges that ITT engaged in predatory lending. The company is under investigation by more than a dozen state attorneys general. ITT has denied the allegations in the lawsuits, which are ongoing.

Lost records

A fire in 1973 destroyed 80 percent of Army personnel records for soldiers discharged between Nov. 1, 1912 to Jan. 1, 1960 and 75 percent of the Air Force records of Airmen discharged between Sept. 25, 1947 to Jan. 1, 1964 (with surnames beginning with Hubbard and running through the end of the alphabet).

Veterans whose records have been lost can download and fill out a specific form at the National Archives or VA website that authorizes the National Personnel Records Center to search for other types of documents that would assist the veteran with their VA healthcare access or compensation claim, or for valuable research their family member’s service history.

Visit www.benefits.va.gov/COMPENSATION/NPRC1973Fire.asp for more information.

Note: If your service time does not fall into the above time frames and you request copies of your service record only to be told they were destroyed in “the fire,” do not quit. Submit the request again. Most likely they will magically find your record.

By Thomas Crisp

Contributing Columnist

Thomas Crisp is a retired military officer from Whitmire. His veterans updates can be found weekly in The Newberry Observer.


Thomas Crisp is a retired military officer from Whitmire. His veterans updates can be found weekly in The Newberry Observer.


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