Lawmakers’ concerns about improper VA opiate prescription cutoffs grow

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Since FOX59 investigated allegations of abrupt opiate prescription cut-off at the VA, several lawmakers have been working to get answers about how widespread the problem might be.

Based on the findings of our investigation and a Veteran’s Health Administration investigation report, we now know the issue is happening in at least two different Northern Indiana VA system facilities.

That report, which we obtained through a source on Capitol Hill, shows the VA found evidence that at least one doctor improperly tapered opiate prescriptions without communicating with veterans.

That’s the same practice dozens of veterans have reached out to us to say is happening at the clinics where they receive treatment.

“I told them, in a Healthy Vet text, if you want to take me off this drug, fine, let’s talk about alternatives,” said Rae Ann Panther, one of three veterans being treated at the Marion VA who spoke to FOX59 during the initial investigation. “I’m willing to come off the tramadol, but give me something that’s going to help me.”

Today, Senator Joe Donnelly and the Indianapolis Roudebush VA clinic director Dr. Brian Hancock, both addressed these new concerns, alongside old worries about over-prescribing.

“We began to focus on the fact that we didn’t want anybody to ever have any pain,” said Dr. Hancock. “Now we are 180 degrees from that.”

Across the country, VA doctors and nurse practitioners are supposed to make sure other forms of pain management are available before taking veterans off their opiates.

“We have some relatively strong guidelines about how we can begin to reduce things,” said Dr. Hancock. “For some veterans, that may be a little bit too fast.”

Dr. Hancock says some veterans can react poorly to finding out a drug they depend on currently to maintain a good quality of life, should no longer be an option. And because all pain needs are different, he says doctors at Roudebush should be taking veterans’ concerns seriously, not using a “one-size-fits-all” formula to get people off the medications. That includes leaving some veterans on long-term opiate therapy if needed.

“We’re always willing to listen,” said Dr. Hancock.

But given that investigations have shown the guidelines aren’t always executed as they should be at other facilities, lawmakers like Senator Joe Donnelly, who visited Roudebush Monday, say they still have questions. Donnelly says it’s important to know whether over-prescribing and abrupt cutoff concerns are legitimate in Indiana and nationwide.

He recently issued a letter to the VA asking them to respond to the allegations.

“I would’ve liked to have gotten [answers] right away,” said Donnelly. “They know how to get a hold of me. All they have to do is call the staff, all they have to do is call the team, so we’re working right now to get those answers.”