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The VA killed thousands of vets and fueled the national opioid crisis by recklessly throwing pills at a problem
Illustration by FOREAL

LATE ONE SUMMER NIGHT IN 2014, KEVIN KELLER BROKE INTO HIS BEST FRIEND’S HOME. Keller was a U.S. Navy vet wracked with constant pain, and because his right arm had been crippled by a stroke, he had to use his left hand to scrawl a note of apology to his buddy: “Marty, Sorry I broke into your house and took your gun to end the pain! FU VA!!! Can’t take it anymore.” He then drove to his nearby Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Wytheville, Virginia, and pounded on the locked doors of the medical office, probably out of frustration or as a final protest, since the facility had been closed for hours. Keller then put the barrel of his friend’s 9 mm pistol to his head and shot himself.

Grieving friends told The Roanoke Times that Keller couldn’t handle how the VA was weaning him off painkillers. His doctors had told him cutting back would extend his life, but Marty Austin, whose gun Keller stole that night, told the paper, “He did not want a longer life if he was going to be miserable and couldn’t do anything because of the pain.”

Suicides like Keller’s and the widespread despair behind them are yet another tragic element of a national opioid crisis blamed for most of the 64,000 fatal drug overdoses a year. Opioids, mostly illegally obtained counterfeit pills and heroin, now account for 63 percent of all drug deaths in the U.S., with fatalities climbing at an astounding rate of nearly 20 percent a year. In fact, the estimated number of drug deaths in 2016 topped the total number of soldiers killed in the Iraq and Vietnam wars. There’s a grim irony in that statistic, because the Department of Veterans Affairs has played a little-discussed role in fueling the opioid epidemic that is killing civilians and veterans alike. In 2011, veterans were twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses as non-veterans. One reason, as an exhaustive Newsweek investigation—based on this reporter’s book, Mental Health, Inc.—found, is that for over a decade, the VA recklessly overprescribed opiates and psychiatric medications. Since mid-2012, though, it has swung dangerously in the other direction, ordering a drastic cutback of opioids for chronic pain patients, but it is bungling that program and again putting veterans at risk. (It has also left untouched one of the riskiest classes of medications, antipsychotics— prescribed overwhelmingly for uses that aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), such as with post-traumatic stress disorder.)

“I am going CRAZY because of the pain and burning up with anger at the VA.”

A key role in spreading opiate use was played by Purdue Pharma, the OxyContin manufacturer convicted of hiding the drug’s addictive properties. It gave $200,000 to the VA pain management team that essentially turned the VA into its propaganda arm, according to secret corporate documents obtained by Newsweek. The team helped develop the initial VA– Department of Defense guidelines that concluded opiates “rarely” cause addiction. A 2001 budget plan outlining Purdue’s marketing schemes hailed “additional corporate initiatives and partnering efforts [that] were very successful with the Veterans Administration” and other major health organizations in promoting the phony campaign, “Pain: The 5th Vital Sign.”

Today, the number of patients affected by the VA’s swinging opiate pendulum is staggering: 60 percent of veterans who fought in the Middle East and 50 percent of older veterans have chronic pain. Since 2012, though, there has been a 56 percent drop to a mere 53,000 chronic pain VA patients receiving opioids— leading to swift, mandated cutoffs regardless of patient well-being and with virtually no evidence that it’s a safe approach. For a taste of the kind of indifferent care vets with chronic pain are getting, consider Marine veteran Robert Rose. He is now mostly confined to a wheelchair, suffering from severe spine, neck and knee injuries from his military service—but until he was cut off from opioid pain medications last year (despite not abusing them), he didn’t need a wheelchair and was able to play with his grandkids and build finely crafted woodworks. The primary care doctor at the Mountain Home, Tennessee, VA Medical Center told a hobbled, diabetic Rose and his wife during an office visit in May, “You should continue smoking, as it will help you with the stress and frustrations you are dealing with now. And you should continue to drink Mountain Dew, as the sugar molecules will attach to the pain receptors and block the pain you are experiencing without pain medications.”

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PAIN KILLERS How the VA fueled The Opioid Crisis and destroyed the lives of thousands of vets. Suicides are the widespread despair behind them are yet another tragic element of a national opioid crisis blamed for most of the sixty four thousand fatal drug overdoses a year. Opioids, mostly illegally obtained counterfeit pills and heroin, now account for 63 percent of all drug deaths in the U.S., with fatalities climbing at an astounding rate of nearly twenty percent a year. In fact, the estimated number of drug deaths in 2016 topped the total number of soldiers killed in the Iraq and Vietnam wars.
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