tomdispatch | By 2008, congressional legislation had been written -- the Veterans’ Mental Health and Other Care Improvement Act -- directing the VA to develop a plan to evaluate all patients for pain. When the VA objected to Congress dictating its medical procedures, Big Pharma launched a “Freedom from Pain” media blitz, enlisting veterans’ organizations to campaign for the bill and get it passed.
Those painkillers were also dispatched to the war zones where our troops were physically breaking down under the weight of the equipment they carried. By 2010, a third of the Army’s soldiers were on prescription medications -- and nearly half of them, 76,500, were on prescription opioids -- which proved to be highly addictive, despite the assurance of experts like Rollin Gallagher. In 2007, for instance, “The American Veterans and Service Members Survival Guide,” distributed by the American Pain Foundation and edited by Gallagher, offered this assurance: “[W]hen used for medical purposes and under the guidance of a skilled health-care provider, the risk of addiction from opioid pain medication is very low.”
By that time, here at home, soldiers and vets were dying at astonishing rates from accidental or deliberate overdoses. Civilian doctors as well had been persuaded to overprescribe these drugs, so that by 2011 the CDC announced a national epidemic, affecting more than 12 million Americans. In May 2012, the Senate Finance Committee finally initiated an investigation into the perhaps “improper relation” between Big Pharma and the pain foundations. That investigation is still “ongoing,” which means that no information about it can yet be revealed to the public.
Meanwhile, opioid addicts, both veterans and civilians, were discovering that heroin was a cheaper and no less effective way to go. Because heroin is often cut with Fentanyl, a more powerful opioid, however, drug deaths rose dramatically.
This epidemic of death is in the news almost every day now as hard-hit cities and states sue the drug makers, but rarely is it traced to its launching pad: the Big Pharma conspiracy to make big bucks off our country’s wounded soldiers.
It took the VA far too long to extricate itself from medical policies marketed by Big Pharma and, in effect, prescribed by Congress. It had made the mistake of turning to the Pharma-funded pain foundations in 2004 to select its Deputy National Program Director of Pain Management: the ubiquitous Dr. Gallagher. But when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency finally laid down new restrictive rules on opioids in 2014, the VA had to comply. That’s been hard on the thousands of opioid-dependent vets it had unwittingly hooked, and it’s becoming harder as Republicans in Congress move to privatize the VA and send vets out with vouchers to find their own health care.