By Pat Anson, Editor
A new study by a prominent think tank could give further ammunition to the Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce access to opioid pain medication in its healthcare system.
Researchers at the RAND Corporation studied data from nearly 32,500 patients who were treated at VA facilities in 2007 and were identified as having an opioid use disorder. The goal was to identify “quality measures” that could help reduce the death rate of addicted patients.
The researchers found that deaths were much lower among patients who were not prescribed opioids or anxiety medications, those who received counseling, and patients who had regular visits with a VA physician. They estimate the number of deaths could be reduced by a third if all three quality measures were adopted.
"This is a very large drop in mortality and we need to conduct more research to see if these findings hold up in other patient care settings," said Dr. Katherine Watkins, a physician scientist at RAND and lead author of the study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
"But our initial findings suggest that these quality measures could go a long way toward improving patient outcomes among those who suffer from opioid addiction."
The findings suggest that a key to reducing mortality is to minimize the prescribing of opioid medication and benzodiazepines to veterans with opioid addiction. Benzodiazepines are a class of psychiatric medication used to treat anxiety disorders.
Because lower death rates were also associated with counseling and quarterly visits with a VA physician, researchers concluded that addicted patients benefit from making a connection with a caregiver, who can identify changes in their behavior and potential for relapse.
Surprisingly, patients in the study who were prescribed addiction treatment drugs such as Suboxone (buprenorphine) did not have lower death rates.
"We know from other research that medication-assisted therapy can help people stay off drugs, get jobs and lead more-productive lives," Watkins said. "But in this study, the treatment strategy was not associated with lower mortality."
The VA has already taken a number of measures to reduce opioid prescribing, including a new guideline that strongly recommends against prescribing opioids for chronic pain. VA physicians are also being urged not to prescribe opioids long-term to anyone under the age of 30. The guideline recommends exercise and psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy as treatments for chronic pain, along with non-opioid drugs such as gabapentin.
“We’ve been working on this now for seven years and we’ve seen a 33 percent reduction in use of opioids among veterans, but we have a lot more to do. We have a lot we can learn,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin told a White House opioid commission earlier this month. "At the VA, my top priority is to reduce veteran suicides. And when we look at the overlap with substance abuse and opioid abuse, it’s really clear.”
According to a recent VA study, an average of 20 veterans die each day from suicide, a rate that is 21 percent higher than the civilian population. Veterans also suffer from high rates of chronic pain, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.