VA helped fuel opioid crisis: Tucson VA's alternative steps

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - A grim overview of the opioid crisis has been depicted in national magazines and news feeds over the past few months.

The VA played a role in fueling an epidemic -- accidental opioid overdoses -- that's been killing twice as many veterans as non-veterans.

Veteran advocate Ed Wagner fought in the Vietnam War. He says he's taken every opiate known to man to treat his chronic severe pain. He feels fortunate he's still alive today.

"I know if it weren't for my wife, I may have taken more medication than I needed or should have taken because I couldn't remember if I had already taken it. You can't handle the stuff if you're by yourself. You can't remember. Psychologically, you go to a different place," he said.

Opioid prescription numbers shot up from 2004 through 2012 as veterans returned home from Afghanistan and Iraq deployments and sought treatment for acute and chronic pain.

During that time, pain was considered the fifth vital sign.

Tucson VA Chief of Staff Anthony Stazzone says pain had to be treated, "and treat pain to whatever step possible and we had whatever means," he said.

Opioids became the go to medication that doctors prescribed in the public and private sectors.

"It opened a pandora's box and over time what we've seen -- not intentional but unintentional consequence of what opioid was," said Stazzone.

For many years, the VA was guilty of just handing out opiates like they were candy," said Wagner.

Dr. Gabrielle Korshorka headed the pain management division at the Tucson VA during that time. She told us after years of overprescribing the highly addictive pain-killers to veterans, in late 2012 the VA ordered a drastic cutback for chronic pain patients.

"That was unfair to the patient who had been maintained on very high doses of opioids and suddenly had to be tapered down very rapidly," she said.

Wagner described his experience.

He said, "The withdrawals are horrendous. There's no way to describe the agony you go through. That's the first time I ended up in Ward 1. That's a psych ward because I couldn't handle getting off the opiates. You just lose your head. You're just not a rational person and the only thing to think of to stop the pain is the physical is very real as well. When you're withdrawing from this stuff all you can think of is ending it."

Dr. Korshorka led the way in alternative care.

"To really implement, you have to give a variety of services, such as physical therapy, behavioral health and psychological evaluations," she said.

Her chronic pain team helped Wagner taper down slowly.

She said, "those patients feel like that one pill is giving their life back and one pill is taking their pain away and they don't want to give up that one pill. Because they feel like they have earned it. They have so much pain that they should be getting those pills and they don't want to do anything else either. Holistic is hard -- patients have to work at it."

Current Pharmacy Chief, Kristina De Los Santos said, "critical part of the treatment plan is the psychological side of pain. It's a very personal thing -- pain. This facility has been individualized -- taking one patient at a time and evaluating treatment and deciding what's best for them."

And these health experts don't mince words with patients: the holistic path may be hard, but the alternative could be deadly.

Wagner urged, "For the love of your family -- for the love of your community. Go ahead and get the help -- forget the stigma."


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