Department of Veterans Affairs doctors are prescribing significantly fewer narcotic painkillers to patients than they did five years ago, according to recently released numbers.
On Thursday, the VA became the first hospital system to publicly post its opioid prescription rates as it seeks to reduce the use of narcotic painkillers that have been blamed for deadly overdoses among veterans.
Prescribing rates in the Central Texas VA system fell 55 percent between 2012 and 2017, the sixth largest decline in the nation. Opioid prescriptions now make up 8 percent of total VA pharmacy prescriptions in the region, compared to 18 percent in 2012.
Of the 12 VA systems with the greatest declines, five are located in Texas. The El Paso system had the highest decline of the 146 VA systems across the country, with a 66 percent decrease.
The Houston VA has the lowest prescribing rate in Texas, at 6 percent, while Amarillo had the highest at 16 percent.
“It is important that we are transparent on how we prescribe opioids, so veterans and the public can see what we are doing in our facilities and the progress we have made over time,” said VA Secretary David Shulkin in a statement.
Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway praised the data release, saying “This is an innovative way to raise awareness, increase transparency and mitigate the dangers of over-prescribing.”
In 2012, an American-Statesman investigation revealed the explosive growth of VA narcotic prescribing: between 2002 and 2011, VA oxycodone prescriptions increased 150 percent. Prescriptions for hydrocodone jumped 360 percent. The newspaper’s investigation found that 1 in 5 deaths of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in Texas was the result of an overdose, far higher than their civilian counterparts.
Under pressure from lawmakers, the VA embarked on an opioid safety initiative in 2014 to reduce the number of narcotic prescriptions its doctors dole out.
That process has proven painful for a number of VA patients who have claimed the VA canceled their prescriptions on dubious grounds, forcing them to quit cold turkey and without offering them alternatives to opioids as VA policy requires, according to a 2015 investigation.
That same year, Disabled American Veterans, an influential advocacy group, called for more “humane” pain management treatment as the VA sought a balance between giving the painkillers to those who need them to function and reducing or discontinuing them for those who don’t.
Last summer, the VA’s Office of Inspector General released a report finding that the increased use of non-VA care, through the VA’s Choice Program, presented “significant risk” for patients receiving opioids from private doctors who may not be aware of VA guidelines.
VA opioid prescription rates in Texas
In the El Paso region, the opioid prescription rate was 19 percent in 2012; in 2017 it was 7 percent — a 66-percent decrease.
In the Central Texas region, the opioid prescription rate was 18 percent in 2012; in 2017 it was 8 percent — a 55-percent decrease.
In the Houston region, the opioid prescription rate was 12 percent in 2012; in 2017 it was 6 percent — a 54-percent decrease.
In the West Texas region, the opioid prescription rate was 22 percent in 2012; in 2017 it was 11 percent — a 52-percent decrease.
In the San Antonio region, the opioid prescription rate was 17 percent in 2012; in 2017 it was 8 percent — a 52-percent decrease.
In the Harlingen region, the opioid prescription rate was 13 percent in 2012; in 2017 it was 8 percent — a 42-percent decrease.
In the Dallas region, the opioid prescription rate was 20 percent in 2012; in 2017 it was 12 percent — a 41-percent decrease.
In the Amarillo region, the opioid prescription rate was 25 percent in 2012; in 2017 it was 16 percent — a 37-percent decrease.