Suicides like Keller’s and the widespread despair behind them are yet another tragic element of a national opioid crisis blamed for most of the 64,000 fatal drug overdoses a year. Opioids, mostly illegally obtained counterfeit pills and heroin, now account for 63 percent of all drug deaths in the U.S., with fatalities climbing at an astounding rate of nearly 20 percent a year. In fact, the estimated number of drug deaths in 2016 topped the total number of soldiers killed in the Iraq and Vietnam wars. There’s a grim irony in that statistic, because the Department of Veterans Affairs has played a little-discussed role in fueling the opioid epidemic that is killing civilians and veterans alike. In 2011, veterans were twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses as non-veterans. One reason, as an exhaustive Newsweek investigation—based on this reporter’s book, Mental Health, Inc.—found, is that for over a decade, the VA recklessly overprescribed opiates and psychiatric medications. Since mid-2012, though, it has swung dangerously in the other direction, ordering a drastic cutback of opioids for chronic pain patients, but it is bungling that program and again putting veterans at risk. (It has also left untouched one of the riskiest classes of medications, antipsychotics—prescribed overwhelmingly for uses that aren’t approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), such as with post-traumatic stress disorder.)A key role in spreading opiate use was played by Purdue Pharma, the OxyContin manufacturer convicted of hiding the drug’s addictive properties. It gave $200,000 to the VA pain management team that essentially turned the VA into its propaganda arm, according to secret corporate documents obtained by Newsweek. The team helped develop the initial VA–Department of Defense guidelines that concluded opiates “rarely” cause addiction. A 2001 budget plan outlining Purdue’s marketing schemes hailed “additional corporate initiatives and partnering efforts [that] were very successful with the Veterans Administration” and other major health organizations in promoting the phony campaign, “Pain: The 5th Vital Sign.”
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Today, the number of patients affected by the VA’s swinging opiate pendulum is staggering: 60 percent of veterans who fought in the Middle East and 50 percent of older veterans have chronic pain. Since 2012, though, there has been a 56 percent drop to a mere 53,000 chronic pain VA patients receiving opioids—leading to swift, mandated cutoffs regardless of patient well-being and with virtually no evidence that it’s a safe approach.