Secretary Shulkin discusses opioid use with Leo Shane

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has begun publicly posting data on how frequently its doctors prescribe opioids to help with patients’ pain, in an effort to increase awareness about use of the problematic medications.

The move is the latest a broader transparency campaign led by VA Secretary David Shulkin. In 2017, for the first time, department officials began publicly listing information on VA disciplinary actions, hospital wait times and leadership travel.

But the latest move will make the department the first hospital system in the country to disclose details on opioid use, which health experts say has risen dramatically in recent years and may cause as many as 90 overdose deaths a day nationwide.

In an interview with Military Times on Thursday, VA Secretary David Shulkin said he hopes the move will provide clearer picture of VA facilities that are successfully responding to the problem.

“I think VA is among some of the best work in the country on this, but we have to continue to learn from within VA to spread it to other VA centers,” he said. “And we also have the responsibility to share what we learned with the rest of the country.”

Since 2012, when VA instituted a new opioid safety initiative to decrease the amount of medication dispensed, prescriptions have dropped more 41 percent system-wide. Officials said 99 percent of facilities have decreased their prescribing rates.

Late last year, Shulkin invited members of the White House commission on opioids to visit the Cleveland VA Medical Center to discuss their medication management techniques. Shulkin said the facility has only 3 percent of its patients using opioids.

But Shulkin acknowledged that prescribing rates remain high at some VA facilities.

“What you can see now across the country — this will be available when we publicly post this in the near future — you will see some parts of the country are doing better than other parts of the country,” he said.

In a statement, Kellyanne Conway — counselor to the president and a lead official on the opioid commission — praised VA’s move as “aninnovative way to raise awareness, increase transparency and mitigate the dangers of overprescribing.”

VA officials said the new data will include how facilities’ usage rates have changed in recent years, but cautioned against comparing different centers and regions directly against each other “because the needs and condition of veterans may be different at each facility.”

Shulkin called the department’s new transparency efforts part of a broader cultural change at the department over the last year, an a permanent change in how VA officials will approach their responsibilities for years to come.

“When you begin to start disclosing and publicly sharing information, it’s very hard to stop that,” he said. “That’s a commitment that’s going to be at VA for a long time. And that’s part of what we need to do to transform this organization to regain the trust of those we serve, our veterans.”

The data is available at the VA’s web site.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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