20 veterans die by suicide daily. A new bill aims to discover the role of prescription drugs.

Photo credit Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

Are prescription medications, treatment at VA or lack of treatment, linked to veteran deaths by suicide? 

A bill first championed by the late Sen. John McCain, revived this Congress, aims to find out by gathering data to improve understanding of veteran deaths by suicide, especially as it relates to opioid prescription and use. 

The Veteran Overmedication and Suicide Prevention Act directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to review veteran deaths by suicide, requiring the VA to work with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

    The bill is sponsored by Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and was among the first bills he introduced this session, saying the bill was intended to "study the link between addictive opioids and the alarmingly high rate of suicides among veterans."

About 20 veterans die by suicide daily, according to VA data, and many of them are not actively receiving care at VA. A few of those 20 per day are not eligible for VA care, officials say. 

The study would examine all veteran deaths by suicide in the past five years, including: the total number of veterans who died by suicide, the number who died "a violent death," the number of veterans who died accidental deaths and more.

The study also would include:

  • A "comprehensive list" of prescribed medications, legal or illegal substances that the veterans were taking, especially any substances that come with warnings of suicidal ideation. 
  • A summary of medical diagnoses by VA doctors or other health care providers that led to prescribing those medications in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and other anxiety and depressive disorders.
  • The number of times a veteran who died by suicide, violence or accident were on multiple medications by VA at the same time to treat those issues.
  • The number of veterans who died by those causes who were not taking any medication prescribed by VA. 
  • The number of veterans who died by those causes and received non-medication treatment versus the number who only received medication. 
  • Details of how the VA decides when to prescribe medications. 
  • Details of how VA measures pain scores, and how that relates to the number of veterans on multiple medications. 
  • An analysis of the VA's efforts to maintain "appropriate" staffing for mental health services, including training and hiring practices. 
  • The number of veterans who died of any of those causes who also experienced trauma, including military sexual trauma, combat, brain injuries or PTSD. 
  • A list of VA hospitals with high prescription rates and high rates of suicide. 

Seventy percent of veteran deaths by suicide involve guns, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told Congress this summer. Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veterans, VA data shows, and are more than 20 percent more likely to due by suicide involving a gun than non-veterans. 

Veterans are also three times more likely to die by suicide if there is a gun in their home, Wilkie said. 

A recent report on 2018 active-duty deaths by suicide showed the highest recorded number of troop deaths by suicide ever. 

Two Senators are working to introduce legislation to encourage and help states fund red-flag laws, which create a judicial due process to remove guns from people -- including veterans -- determined to be a danger to themselves and others.  

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.
Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett

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