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How the House opioid bill intends to help veterans

The US House of Representatives plans to vote this week on a series of opioid abuse bills. One is aimed at helping veterans, who have been disproportionately affected by the opioids abuse epidemic.

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    Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona (l.) shook hands with Vietnam veteran Chuck Tharp (r.) on April 18, 2014, in Phoenix. One of this week's 18 Congressional bills is aimed at helping veterans, who have been disproportionately affected by the opioids abuse epidemic.
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The House of Representatives is set to vote this week on a slate of drug abuse bills, and one targets a population hit hard by what is now known as an opioid abuse epidemic – veterans of the nation's armed forces. 

Passed easily by a voice vote on Tuesday, the bill pushes the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand management programs for opioid prescriptions to veterans, and it promotes alternative treatments for pain, according to a press release from Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R) of Florida, who sponsored the bill. 

Veterans die from drug abuse at almost twice the rate of the population on average, according to a 2011 study under the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Efforts to stop the abuse have been complicated by a lack of alternatives. At least half of America's veterans suffer from chronic pain, and initiatives to treat veterans without powerful pain medications are few and usually run locally, Sarah Childress reported for PBS Frontline. Many overbooked Veteran's Affairs doctors who want to ease their patients' suffering feel they have no option but to prescribe more and more powerful drugs. 

"We do not have another silver bullet that we can say, 'Instead of opioids, take this,' " Dr. Carolyn Clancy of the VA told Frontline. "It's much more a matter of individualizing and trying different alternatives, and that can be really frustrating for patients as well as clinicians."

The Congressional bills aim to change this. The House bill empowers the Department of Justice to fund local governments with initiatives to manage alternative treatment programs for veterans or that offer veteran-specific training to emergency personnel who work with opioid users.

The measure also hits at the isolation often associated with drug abuse by prioritizing programs to "connect qualified veterans with other veterans for the purpose of providing support and mentorship" throughout treatment, recovery, and rehabilitation. 

The bill from the House, as well as a plan in the Senate, would provide support to special veterans treatment courts. Such programs began only in 2008, but one court in Tulsa, Okla., boasts a 90 percent graduation rate for veterans who, after being arrested on drug-related charges, are willing to enter the court's mentoring programs and get clean, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. 

"They don't know who they are anymore; they lost their self-identity," Craig Prosser, an Army veteran and coordinator for the Tulsa program told the Center for Investigative Reporting. "What I want to do is help them find that, help to find their … true north, as we say in the infantry."

Such treatment courts often require frequent drug testing and accountability to a case worker, but they can offer housing, job training, and services to deal with the trauma of both war and drug abuse in lieu of prison time. 

Congressional leaders plan to merge the veterans bill with other House bills targeting opioid abuse and combine them with the Senate's Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, Sarah Ferris reported for The Hill. Congress hopes to send the bill to the president's desk this summer. 

The White House has criticized the bills because they do not guarantee any new funding, but Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma has said the Appropriations Committee, of which he is part, is working on a plan to include the money in the annual budget for 2017. 

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