May 4 2017

This week, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, co-sponsored The Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act, bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) that would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct an independent expert study on the deaths of all veterans being treated at the VA who died by suicide or from a drug overdose in the last five years.

“Reducing the heartbreaking number of veterans who commit suicide every single day has been one of my top priorities as a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee,” said Senator Tillis. “I want to thank Senator McCain for his leadership on this legislation to study the relationship between veteran suicides and prescription medication, an important step in highlighting the dangerous practice of over prescription so the VA can begin to implement safer and more effective treatment regimens.”
“The tragedy of 20 veterans a day dying from suicide is a national scandal,” said Senator McCain. “Combatting this epidemic will require the best research and understanding about the key causes of veteran suicide, including whether overmedication of drugs, such as opioid painkillers, is a contributing factor in suicide-related deaths. This legislation would authorize an independent review of veterans who died of suicide or a drug overdose over the last five years to ensure doctors develop safe and effective treatment plans for their veteran patients. We have a long way to go to eradicate veteran suicide, but this legislation builds on important efforts to end the tragedy that continues to claim far too many lives far too soon.”
“I have worked across party lines to hold the VA accountable because too often our veterans are getting hooked on drugs instead of the care they need. I'm proud to continue that work by joining this bipartisan effort led by Senator McCain to confront the overmedication of veterans and prevent suicide deaths,” said Senator Baldwin. “Our veterans and their families deserve solutions to the challenges they face and this bipartisan legislation can help improve and save the lives of those that have served and sacrificed for our country.”
This legislation is also co-sponsored by Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and is supported by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, AMVETS, and the National Board for Certified Counselors.
This review would ensure that the VA has accurate information about the relationship between veteran suicides and prescription medication. Additionally, this legislation would direct the VA to perform a more comprehensive review of its behavioral health workforce with a focus on mental health counselors in an effort to address workforce shortages. These professionals will increase access to services and help reduce the incidence of suicide.
An average of 20 veterans a day die from suicide, accounting for nearly a quarter of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults. Since 2001, the rate of veteran suicide has increased by 32 percent. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent higher for veterans than the average U.S. adult. Since 2001, there has been a 259 percent increase in narcotics prescriptions. In the largest veteran populations, veterans die from accidental narcotic overdose at a 33 percent higher rate than the rest of the population. Veterans can “double dip” on prescription drugs by filling at the VA and in the community. Although the VA has established State Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, there is no real enforcement.
The legislation would require a National Academies of Science study to review:
  • The total number of veterans who died by suicide death in the last five years;
  • The total number of veterans who were involved in a violent, suicide or accidental death;
  • The prevalence of medications or illegal substances in the system of each veteran who died;
  • The number of instances in which the veteran was concurrently on multiple medications prescribed by VA physicians or non-VA physicians;
  • The percentage of veterans who are receiving non-medication first-line treatment (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) as treatment and its effectiveness versus other treatments;
  • An analysis, by state, of programs of the VA that collaborate with state Medicaid agencies, including an analysis of the sharing of prescription and behavioral health data for veterans; and
  • Other aspects of care and recommendations to improve the safety and well-being of veterans.