Report: VA Patients 33 Percent More Likely to Die of Overmedication
Patients at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics are 33 percent more likely to die from accidental overdoses of medications than the general population, CBS News has found.
The report focused on the case of a 35-year old Army veteran, Scott MacDonald, who was proscribed a cocktail of seven different medications for pain and psychiatric conditions, including narcotics like Percocet and Vicodin – both opiate derivatives.
According to CBS’s reporting, sources within the VA are saying that VA officials have been encouraging doctors to sign off on painkiller and other medications – including narcotics – on patients they don’t see. In the short run, the practice actually saves money, because patients with enough painkillers tend to make fewer appointments and consume fewer health care services.
In the long run, however, doctors signing off on these assembly line prescriptions are putting patients at risk of opiate or prescription medicine addiction and a host of negative side effects, including accidental fatal overdose.
The CBS report builds on earlier reporting from a local NBC affiliate in Ohio, which found that the number of unintentional drug overdose deaths in Ohio tripled between 2001 and 2011. Furthermore, an earlier study published in the Journal of Psychiatry found that veterans had a significantly elevated risk of death due to accidental overdose compared to the general population nationwide.
In 2010, Dr. Pamela Gray, then a VA physician, became concerned because, as she states, VA officials were asking her and other doctors to sign off on continuing narcotics prescriptions on patients they had not even seen, much less evaluated. She took her concerns to Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who in turn had the VA launch an investigation. Gray subsequently lost her job – she says because she blew the whistle, though the VA cites poor communications skills as the reason she no longer practices at the VA. However, according to reporting by the Virginian Pilot, the VA’s own internal investigation mostly cleared themselves of wrongdoing, though four of the fifteen physicians interviewed said they, too, had been asked to write prescriptions for patients they had not seen. The VA Inspector General’s office wrote that there was, indeed, a perception of pressure to write narcotics prescriptions and an expectation of retaliation against any doctor who failed to do so.
At the same time media reports are highlighting the possible overreliance on psychoactive medications such as anti-psychotics in more general settings.