Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in his position as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is pressing for expanded veterans’ access to treatments such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation and animal-assisted therapy for chronic pain.
In an April 30 hearing on overmedication at the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments, Sanders, a longtime admirer of complementary and alternative medical treatments, said VA must do more to reduce its doctors’ reliance on prescriptions to treat pain.
“For many veterans, chronic pain is a part of their daily life ... options for managing chronic pain are paramount to improving their quality of life,” Sanders said.
According to Pentagon data, about a quarter of active-duty personnel received a prescription for an opiate-based painkiller in 2013.
At VA, about half of patients with chronic pain are prescribed opioids such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet.
In the past five years, both VA and DoD have moved to reduce the number of potentially addictive prescriptions. A DoD task force in 2010 released a comprehensive pain management plan for physicians, and the Pentagon has cut the percentage of active-duty troops receiving opiates from 26 percent in 2011 to 24 percent last year.
And VA in April launched a departmentwide Opioid Safety Initiative focused on patient education, prescription monitoring and emphasis on complementary and alternative practices.
According to VA, the program already is seeing success, reducing the number of VA patients receiving opiates in the past 18 months by 50,000, said VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel.
The long-term use of highly addictive opioid pain medications can lead to chronic abuse, overdose and accidental death if taken in conjunction with other medications.
In the hearing, Sanders said alternatives should be considered before prescribing these drugs. The program on which VA’s OSI effort is modeled uses a comprehensive approach that includes acupuncture, relaxation, meditation, tai chi and aromatherapy along with traditional psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., cited the case of a veteran prescribed medication for chronic pain because it was inexpensive and expedient.
“Is this the ‘veteran-centric’ care we constantly hear VA describing? When it comes to the care we are providing to those who have sacrificed so much ... we can’t afford to get it wrong,” Burr said.
Sanders introduced legislation earlier this year that would require VA to expand access to alternative treatments. The bill failed on a procedural vote, but Sanders has pledged to try again this year.