Opioid abuse crisis takes heavy toll on U.S. veterans

Needles used for shooting heroin and other opioids along with other paraphernalia litter the ground in a park in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. October 26, 2017.

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Opioid drug abuse has killed more Americans than the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam wars combined, and U.S. veterans and advocates this Veteran’s Day are focusing on how to help victims of the crisis.

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.

President Donald Trump named opioids a national public health emergency and a White House commission last week recommended establishing a nationwide system of drug courts and easier access to alternatives to opioids for people in pain.

“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.

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.

A delay in naming a Trump administration “drug czar” to head the effort, however, has fueled doubts about immediate action on the opioid crisis. 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.


(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Dan Grebler)


Missouri sued for over-exposing foster children to psychotropic drugs

The Missouri State House is pictured in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S

By Chris Kenning

(Reuters) – Two youth legal advocacy groups sued Missouri on Monday on behalf of 13,000 foster children, arguing that poor oversight left many of them over-exposed to psychotropic drugs carrying risks of side effects, from diabetes to seizures.

The lawsuit seeks to force Missouri, and as a result to pressure other states, to enact stricter measures to guard against the over-medication of children in state custody.

Filed by Children’s Rights and the National Center for Youth Law in U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, it is the first statewide federal suit to take sole aim at the issue, attorneys said. They are seeking class-action status for the suit.

“Giving a pill to sedate the child or older person is a quicker and easier response than training caregivers and staff (to provide) non-pharmacological, safer and in many instances more effective treatment,” said Bill Grimm, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law.

Jennifer Tidball, acting director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, and Tim Decker, director of the department’s Children’s Division, the two agencies named in the suit, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

The lawsuit, also filed by the St. Louis University Legal Clinic, said the children’s constitutional right to be free from harm while in state custody was violated. It seeks a court to order authorities to ensure drugs are safely administered, that medical records are maintained and prescriptions reviewed, and that the children’s informed consent is obtained and documented.

While such drugs can be a helpful part of therapy, poor oversight means some children with behavioral issues rooted in abuse or neglect are given the drugs as “chemical straight-jackets” to control behavior, the lawsuit said.

Some 30 percent of children in state care in Missouri are prescribed psychotropic medications, including anti-psychotics such as Abilify and Risperdal, as well as anti-depressants and mood stabilizers, the lawsuit said. That is almost twice the national rate, it said. Side effects of such drugs can include sleepiness, nervous tics and suicidal thoughts.

Poor coordination means medical records often do not immediately accompany foster children when they move from one placement to another, the lawsuit said.

“These children are being prescribed too many powerful and potentially dangerous drugs, at unacceptable dosages and at too young an age,” said Sara Bartosz, a Children’s Rights attorney.

Some states, including Florida, Texas, California, New York and Illinois, have taken steps such as requiring court authorization for psychotropic prescriptions.

(Reporting by Chris Kenning; Editing by Dan Grebler and Paul Simao)