Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine, husband and father, died at the Tomah VA Medical Center in Wisconsin in 2014 from a toxic combination of prescription drugs. His overdose sparked national outrage, with some veterans calling VA hospitals “candy factories.” His death eventually led to the passage of the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act, which created stronger procedures for the prescription guidelines used by VA providers.
Three years later, Simcakoski’s tragic death hardly stands alone when it comes to veterans overdosing from opioids. In fact, veterans die from accidental drug overdoses at a 33 percent higher rate than the rest of the population, according to the office of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
With that in mind, McCain, a Navy veteran, is now pushing the Veteran Overmedication Prevention Act. The legislation, if passed, will require a study of the number of veterans who died by suicide or by accident over the last five years. It will then look to see if those veterans had drugs in their systems and, if so, how many prescriptions they were using at the time of their deaths.
The overmedication of veterans is still a real problem for the VA, says Carl Higbie, a former Navy Seal who served two tours in Iraq.
“The pharmaceutical industry has a stranglehold on the VA,” says Higbie, who is 60 percent disabled and experienced “blind prescribing” by the VA. As a result of his injuries and an addictive gene, Higbie has become a big proponent of genetic tests that can tell veterans which medications they are sensitive to.
“For this test to become mainstream it would A.) save lives and B.) save the VA probably billions in dollars in overmedication costs, and yet they’re not doing it and it’s like leaving your brothers out to dry,” Higbie says.
“The overwhelming consensus of the pharmacogenomic community is that most of these tests currently lack evidence of clinical effectiveness. That means they have not shown to have better outcomes over the usual methods of drug prescription, with some exceptions. Many commercial tests target psychiatric disease therapy and pain management. One recent VA review documented that these tests do not yet have evidence for utility, especially in the veteran population,” a VA spokesperson responded.
In late March, President Trump announced the creation of a commission to combat opioid abuse across the country.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medication, opioids are defined as “a class of drugs that include the illicit drug heroin as well as the licit prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others.”