VA criticized for pushing veterans too hard to get off opioids - WSMV News 4

VA criticized for pushing veterans too hard to get off opioids

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More than 200,000 veterans are now off opioids as a result of a Veterans Affairs initiative, while critics charge the effort has been deadly in some consequences.

Clarksville resident Susan Vaughn is among the veterans told by her VA doctor that she would no longer be receiving prescriptions for opioids.

Vaughn, who struggles with chronic pain from plantar fasciitis, admits she’d become addicted to the pills.

“Once you start that stuff, you just can't stop,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn said two blood tests showed that the opioids in her system weren’t at high enough levels, and she believes the VA suspected she was selling the drugs.

Vaughn said her VA doctor refused to write anymore prescriptions for opioids and recommended she got into a detox program.

"I was afraid. Going out of my mind because I was afraid of the pain," Vaughn said.

According to statistics by the VA, more than 221,000 veterans have been weaned off opioids since an initiative began in October 2013.

While the numbers sound promising, some criticize the VA for the deadly consequences of the initiative.

Art Levine, author of “Mental Health Inc: How Corruption, Lax Oversight and Failed Reforms Endanger Our Most Vulnerable Citizens,” has written extensively about how he feels the VA ramped up the use of opioids for injured veterans but is too quickly weaving vets off the drugs.

His recent article in Newsweek detailed his concerns.

"People are killing themselves. We open our Newsweek article with a veteran who shot himself in the head because he couldn't handle the extreme pain he was going through,” Levine said.

Curt Cashour, press secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, did not respond to the News 4 I-Team’s request for an interview but instead emailed statements, reading in part:

If opioid dosage reduction is clinically indicated, VA initiates it in a careful and cautious approach that takes the Veteran's individual situation into account.

Cashour also included this chart that shows how the VA determines whether or not to wean a veteran off opioids.

In Vaughn’s case, she was brought to the Nashville VA’s Ketamine Infusion Program. For several hours a day, for four days, she was hooked up to Ketamine and underwent opioid detox.

Dr. Randall Malchow, who directs the program, said the results are promising.

Since its launch in 2016, Malchow said 70 percent of veterans who’ve taken the treatment are no longer on opioids.

"It resets the pain receptors and does it in a way that's profound,” Malchow said.

Malchow was not authorized by the VA to respond to criticism about the initiative to wean veterans off opioids.

Vaughn is one of their success stories, but she admits, it hasn’t been easy.

"There are days I want one (opioid), because I hurt. I keep telling myself, nope,” Vaughn said.

While Vaughn said she is glad she went through it, she worried about her fellow veterans being told their opioid prescriptions will no longer be written.

"It's hard because you're scared. I know there are veterans out there who are buying the stuff on the street,” Vaughn said.

To learn more about the Ketamine Infusion Program, watch our entire interview with Dr. Malchow.

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