Pain relief for vets doesn’t have to lead to deadly prescription drug addiction

Kimberly Mitchell weeps at the Houston National Cemetery for her husband, Chad, an Iraq war veteran who died of an accidental drug overdose after returning home.
Kimberly Mitchell weeps at the Houston National Cemetery for her husband, Chad, an Iraq war veteran who died of an accidental drug overdose after returning home. Austin American-Statesman file

The epidemic of prescription drug abuse in the United States has become rampant and deadly. Unfortunately, those who have served our nation are disproportionately prone to abusing powerful narcotics that have been prescribed for combat injuries.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with other operations across the globe, have led to a sharp increase in the number of opioids being prescribed to military personnel. Those who suffer from dependence and addiction to these medications doubled from 2002 to 2005 and almost tripled between 2005 and 2008, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

It is imperative that injured and recovering veterans have access to pain relief. But promising new technology from certain drugmakers can help offer palliative care, while also helping to curb abuse of opioid drugs.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved several new formulations of narcotic painkillers that are made “tamper proof” to prevent abusers from crushing pills to inhale, inject or snort them – most often the cause of overdose and death from the misuse of prescription pain medications.

According to a July 2014 report from Human Rights Watch, more than 1 million U.S. veterans are estimated to take prescription opioids for pain. Dependence on and abuse of these drugs are often linked with depression, homelessness and suicide among veterans. The report found that half of all accidental deaths were caused by prescription drug overdose.

Prescription drug abuse often begins with legitimate prescriptions but can disintegrate into a dangerous spiral if medications can be altered for abuse. Family members and others with access to these pain medications also are at risk of addiction and misuse.

Research on new formulation of OxyContin, the first opioid approved by the FDA to make abuse-deterrent claims, found that inhalation and injection abuse dropped from 70 percent to 40 percent, and poison control center calls declined by 32 percent.

These new formulations will not eradicate prescription drug abuse in the United States. But they can go a long way in curbing access to medications that can be used for illicit purposes, and to providing humane pain management to those who truly need it. We owe that to the men and women who have served in combat and suffer from unimaginable pain caused by injuries that, in past eras, would have killed them.

The help and support of the military, veterans groups and caregivers are key to helping our veterans recover from drug dependence and live happy, productive lives. As veterans, we applaud the makers of these painkillers for choosing to be part of a big-picture solution that will help to balance pain management with the cost that prescription drug abuse has on society.

We encourage pharmaceutical companies to continue this important research and urge our policymakers to enable them to bring these to market.

Robert O’Neill is a Vietnam-era veteran and chairman emeritus of the VetFund Foundation, a nonprofit that raises awareness and money to support California veterans.