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Thursday, August 24, 2017 1:00 am

Vets express pain over pills

Some at town hall assert VA cut off scripts for opioids

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

Military veterans complained Wednesday at a town hall meeting that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been denying them pain medication.

An Iraq combat veteran said VA put a “red flag” on his prescription and that his wife, also a veteran, “went through withdrawal” because her painkiller prescription was terminated without notice.

“You owe it me to make sure I'm not in pain and that my wife, who's a Gulf War vet, is not in pain. And this war on pain medicine is really ticking me off,” the man told leaders of the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System.

Standing at the front of the auditorium at the VA Medical Center, the man asked a crowd of about two-dozen veterans, “Are they cutting your pain meds off?” Several raised their hands.

One veteran said that after he was caught in prescription limbo between a doctor and a pharmacist, he received the impression that “the government was telling them, 'Well, we've got to cut you guys off (opioids).' ”

The veteran said taking opioids is “the only way I can function.” He added, “I don't want to take them. If I didn't have to, I wouldn't.”

Michael Hershman, director of VA Northern Indiana, said VA's philosophy on prescribing painkillers is changing because of the nationwide epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction.

“The government has not told anybody to cut anybody off (opioids). The goal is to reduce you to a minimum safe level and offer you other treatment modalities,” Hershman said.

He said later in an interview that VA physicians are gradually “tapering” opioid doses in consultation with patients while introducing pain treatments that include acupuncture, massage and physical therapy.

“We had veterans that were on what we determined were long-term unsafe levels of opioids. And so it shouldn't just be reduce, reduce, reduce. It should be tapered at a rate where the veteran's body can adapt to that reduction,” he told The Journal Gazette.

“You can be deliberate, but you've got to be delicate with each veteran,” Hershman said. “The solution for each veteran has got to be tailored to the veteran, and it's got to be a contract between the veteran and the primary care provider.”

As is typical at local VA town halls, area veterans complained Wednesday about facing delays or long distances in obtaining medical treatment and having trouble reaching a knowledgeable person when navigating VA's automated phone system.

Hershman and Audrey Frison, associate director of patient care, urged veterans to bring their problems to officials at the medical center during daily business hours and not wait for a town hall to air their grievances.

“We have an open-door policy,” Hershman told the audience. “It hurts me when a veteran says, 'for the last nine or 10 months or three years,' because we are sitting here waiting to talk to you all.”

Frison said: “All of us are available. You come in and you have a patient concern, we are available to meet your needs, because that is what we're here for.” She said VA's goal is to respond to patient calls within 48 hours of first contact.

Addressing questions about physician shortages, Dr. Pervaz Choudry, deputy chief of staff, said the Fort Wayne medical center is recruiting a dermatologist and more podiatrists. 

VA officials heard a few compliments from veterans, too, including, “You've got a great nursing staff,” “I've never met such caring professionals that we have here,” and “I've seen a lot of improvements.”

Hershman offered an update on various construction projects, including recent renovations to the intensive care unit and plans for remodeling hospital rooms, building a primary care clinic and expanding patient parking.

bfrancisco@jg.net