TN veterans file formal complaints after VA cuts back on opioids

Tennessee
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JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – In the months since Mountain Home VA Hospital started weaning veterans off opioids, many of those patients filed formal complaints, according to federal records.

A breakdown of complaints, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, identified nearly 300 complaints since October linked to opioids.

“They have every right to be upset in the sense that they have their own personal feelings, at the end of the day though we’re here to help take care of them in a safe way,” Mountain Home VA Chief of Staff Dr. David Hecht said. “We will look closer to make sure we’re not making any mistakes, but at the end of the day, if there is a disagreement we have to do what’s safe.”

Despite the number of complaints and intensity of some of them, Dr. Hecht said there are some veterans who have come around to the change.

Related: Tennessee lawmakers push VA to build hospital in Knoxville

“I think there’s a lot of buy in, I think a lot of new understanding of why we’re trying to do this. For the safety of our veterans is really the main reason,” he said. “Some veterans have been very happy, have said that they’ve never felt better and didn’t realize how much the medications were affecting their daily function.”

The roughly 60 complaints came after VA administration sent a letter to patients in September. The letter clarified the reasons for the change, which include research and federal guidelines that warn opioids on their own and mixed with anti-anxiety medications are not only dangerous, they’re also not as effective.

Dr. Hecht says the VA’s priority is providing veterans with pain management alternatives that are not only safer, but work better. For those with non-cancer pain, the VA is recommending acupuncture, yoga, therapy and mental health support as alternatives to opioids.

Army veteran Tony Hughes, Sr. is among those who are unhappy. Hughes says he relies on an opioid to treat a lower back injury.

“They’ve started cutting me back,” he said. “It bothers me, because as many years as I’ve put in, they need to take care of me.”

In the months since the Opiate Safety Initiative, Dr. Hecht says he’s met personally with veterans and in group sessions to address their concerns. He says patient advocates are also there to help veterans through the appeals process.

“We try to take this on an individual basis,” Dr. Hecht said. “We’re always open for better ways of doing things, suggestions and improvements.”

In a statement, Congressman Phil Roe (R), TN-District 1, told us while he supports the VA’s recent decision, “there’s no question more needs to be done.”

“While I support the VA’s recent decision to curb opioid prescriptions for veterans whose pain may be able to be treated effectively without their use, there’s no question more needs to be done,” he said in a statement. “As chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I will continue to conduct oversight on this issue to ensure veterans are receiving the care they need from VA and that VHA clinics and hospitals are doing their fair share to combat the opioid epidemic.”

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