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Congressional Hearing into Alleged Painkiller Abuse at Tomah VA Starts Monday

VA officials say they have been working to improve pain management programs for veterans

Staff at the Tomah VA is accused of over-prescribing painkillers and retaliating against people who blew the whistle. Before federal leaders decided to act, a 35-year-old marine died of an overdose there, last year.

Federal officials acknowledge that problems likely extend beyond Tomah. Carolyn Clancy, Interim Under Secretary for Health for the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, recently told the Senate Veterans Committee that the number of veterans who suffer from chronic pain appears daunting. She put the rate, among those returning from service in the Middle East, at 60 percent.

“Many of our veterans have survived severe battlefield injuries, some repeated, resulting in life-long moderate to severe pain related to muscular-skeletal and permanent nerve damage. This can impact not only their physical abilities but also their emotional health and brain structures,” Clancy said.

When a person suffers from two or more disorders or illnesses, they’re known as co-morbid conditions. Those patients can be particularly at risk for developing addictions to painkillers, because treatment is complex. Clancy says it has to blend care for both the physical and emotional pain and, too often, the narcotics prescribed, have included opioids. They’re known for their addictive nature.

“Here is an instance of excessive quantities of a particular drug doing absolutely horrific damage to our nation’s heroes,” according to Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Blumenthal says he’s astonished the VA health care system hasn’t adequately addressed the problem. He says an epidemic has existed for years, and not just at the Tomah VA in Wisconsin.

“We know that 22 veterans everyday commit suicide, and many of them have suffered from over-prescription of opioids. The current system is abysmally inadequate. It’s like Swiss cheese, riddled with gaps and holes that permit and in fact enable, sometimes even encourage over-prescription, deadly over-prescription of opioids,” Blumenthal said.

The VA system has been working to improve pain management programs, according to the department’s Carolyn Clancy. She says efforts include improving communication among the different practitioners who may treat the same veteran.

Dr. G. Caleb Alexander says some VAs have been leaning away from the use of narcotics to control pain, when possible.

“Things such as physical therapy or biofeedback or acupuncture and the like. To some degree, it depends on the type of pain,” Alexander said.

The testimony people offer at Monday's hearing in Tomah may shed light on bigger problems existing within VA’s nationwide, but Under Secretary Carolyn Clancy says it will also dig into specific allegations here.

“If employee misconduct is identified, we will take the appropriate action and told those responsible, accountable.”

The Tomah VA stands accused of rampant over-prescription of painkillers and retaliation against those who reported questionable practices.

The two Congressional panels holding Monday's joint hearing on the allegations are the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.