As American service members have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan over the last few years, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) has discovered a growing problem.
Veterans who seek treatment for pain are prescribed opiates, which are highly addictive pain pills like hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine. According to CIR, VA prescriptions for opiates increased by 270 percent between 2001 and 2012, far outpacing the increase in patients, who now have a fatal overdose rate of nearly double the national average.
CIR staff reporter Aaron Glantz has investigated this story for months. As one retired Marine, Tim Fazio, told him, "I thought the painkillers were OK because the doctors were prescribing them to me. If the doctor's giving this to me, I'm going to take it...If it makes me feel good, I'm going to take 15 of them, know what I mean?"
CIR's reporting has prompted several Congressional hearings, including one at the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs this week. There Dr. Robert Pretzel, Under Secretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, told the Committee, "15 years ago, it was felt that pain was under-managed and pain medications were pushed; you need to get rid of the pain. That has obviously led—and I'm not talking about the VA but medicine in general—that has led to a problem in this country of the overuse of opiates in managing pain. And the VA is very seriously addressing that problem."
Now, Dr. Basimah Khulusi, a former Veterans Affairs physician, has come forward as a whistleblower on this issue. She says the VA forced her out because patients complained that she wouldn't prescribe high doses of opiates. She's now in private practice in Los Angeles, and the VA has refused to comment on her case.
Dr. Khulusi told CIR and its co-investigator on this story, ABC News, that the majority of the veterans she saw were addicted to opiates, that some veterans received up to 900 narcotic pain pills a month and 1,000 milligrams of morphine a day—10 times the level she considered safe. According to internal data obtained by CIR, the number of opiate prescriptions at the Kansas City VA increased by 173 percent between 2001 and 2012.
Watch a video of ABC's report below. To see an interactive map of CIR's findings, click here.