The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, January 12, 2016 10:25 pm

One-time foes aiding veterans

Brian Francisco | Washington editor

Two federal lawmakers – and former election foes – from Indiana are pushing separately for improved health care for military veterans.

Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd, raised questions Monday about opioid prescription practices of the Department of Veterans Affairs during a meeting of a House task force on heroin abuse.

A day later, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., promoted Veterans Courts by taking the judge who founded Indiana’s first such program to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Rather than hand out punishment, Veterans Courts arrange medical and behavioral treatment for veterans charged with criminal offenses but who suffer from mental illness, brain injuries or substance abuse.

Donnelly narrowly defeated Walorski in the 2010 election in the South Bend-based House district. He was elected to the Senate in 2012, and she won his House seat the same year.

Walorski, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Monday that 2nd District veterans and their families have complained to her and her staff about the ease with which they can obtain powerful painkillers through VA.

"They’re coming in with boxes. They’ll have psychotropics, opiates, they’ll have you-name-it in there in a variety of different kinds of boxes and bottles," Walorski told fellow task force members and witnesses.

"And they come in often times with their spouse literally begging and crying for help. They don’t know what to do," she said in remarks broadcast by C-SPAN.

Walorski introduced legislation recently that would require VA facilities to participate in prescription drug databases maintained by states.

Two witnesses at the task force meeting said VA and other providers have been slow to embrace non-pharmacological remedies for chronic pain.

"I do know one of the problems that people have in the VA is that the old guard sometimes don’t want to go through the process of learning those therapies, to provide those therapies," said Dr. Jessica Peirce, associate director of treatment services at the Johns Hopkins Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit.

"They are difficult therapies to provide and difficult therapies to undergo, and so it is easier to write a prescription" for painkilling drugs, Peirce said. 

Donnelly and his State of the Union guest, Floyd County Superior Court Judge Maria Granger of New Albany, said Tuesday that they, too, have concerns about VA prescription practices.

"We are going to continue to work with the VA to try and reduce and reduce and reduce the number of opioid-based prescriptions, because the opioid-based prescription can be so powerful and so dangerous," Donnelly, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a conference call with reporters.

He added that he wants opioid prescriptions cut "across the board" in health care.

Granger said, "We have talked with our VA hospital at length about this concern."

She said her Veterans Court contacts VA physicians about veterans who go through the court.

"We make sure all the VA doctors are alerted, that they are just as involved and that we know that (veterans) are not receiving an outside provider prescription so that we can manage their treatment more effectively," Granger said.

Granger started the state’s first Veterans Court in 2011. Today there are 15 in Indiana, including in Allen and Noble counties, with nine more planned, including in Whitley County.

"We aim for the root of the problem, and we focus on changing behaviors," Granger said. "The result is a therapeutic outcome rather than a legal outcome that you typically see in courts."

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