Vietnam Veteran: 'I'm Done Fighting'

By Gregg Gaston, Guest Columnist

My story is one of hopelessness. I am 62 years old and a navy Vietnam veteran. I did my time in Vietnam and was discharged honorably as a Chief Petty Officer in 1985 but did not retire.

I went to Kuwait as a logistics advisor for the Kuwait Air Force, stayed there for two years and then returned to the U.S. Desert Storm happened two years after that and I received a phone call wanting to know if I wanted to go back to support the Kuwait Air Force in efforts to retake their homeland. Back I went and stayed through 1995.

In 2002, I developed chronic back pain and had back surgery a few years later. The surgery went badly from the start and was not successful. The pain only grew worse and I was eventually diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy and failed back surgery syndrome. 

Then came the Veterans Administration, which diagnosed me with presumptive Agent Orange exposure. The VA would only pay for treatments for the myriad of things related to Agent Orange, such as pain meds for my legs and medications for high blood pressure. This medicine was prescribed through the local civilian pain management clinic.

I tried every combination of painkillers you can imagine, including but not limited to hydrocodone, methadone, gabapentin and morphine.

My doctor wanted to implant a morphine pain pump, but I refused. 

GREG GASTON

GREG GASTON

Time passed, and things got worse at the VA. A new voucher system, changing regulations, scheduling problems and constantly changing doctors took its toll on me -- as well as trying to differentiate between what happened during which war. At that point I fired the VA and embarked on my journey into privatized medical care. 

I was exposed to sarin gas during Desert Storm, so by then my ailments included chronic back and neck problems, peripheral neuropathy, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and extreme blood pressure problems. No drug completely relieved the pain, but I would take anything that helped even just a little. Over the years my doctors kept admitting they knew I needed more, but pressure from the government and the insurance companies limited what they could prescribe. 

Now we're into the present day and recently my doctor dropped me from three 50mg tramadol down to one 50mg tramadol per day. TRAMADOL for God's sake! I promptly told him where he could stick his tramadol. 

My doctor and I previously had a talk when I was hospitalized with two strokes on the same day. My directives to him were very simple. If you're not going to treat my pain, you're not going to treat anything. With that I stopped taking all my medications. I tried to explain about quality of life, which at this point I had none. It seemed to go over his head. Hospitals now only treat you for why you are in the emergency room, and even though you're admitted that's all they're treating. 

I've given up and am waiting now to die. I've lived a great life and have no expectations of my quality of life improving. 

I'd like to thank the VA, the other government agencies involved, legislatures and my local doctors for putting all their efforts into making things tough on people that are addicted or need pain medication.  

They have a problem which they don't know how to solve, so they’re taking the easy way out by taking all the meds away from EVERYONE. Screw those who really and legitimately need them. 

Common sense is fast disappearing. I'm done fighting, but I'll always be proud of my naval service and of my service to the State of Kuwait. Good luck to us all. 

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Greg Gaston grew up in south Jersey and now lives in Texas. He has two daughters, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us. Send them to editor@painnewsnetwork.org

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Veterans More Likely to Have Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Nearly one out of ten U.S. military veterans suffers from chronic severe pain, according to an extensive new survey that found the prevalence of pain higher in veterans than nonveterans, particularly in veterans who served during recent armed conflicts.

The survey by the National Institutes of Health provides the first national estimate of severe pain in both veterans and nonveterans.

The prevalence of severe pain – defined as pain that occurs "most days" or "every day" and bothers the individual "a lot" – was 9.1% for veterans and 6.4% for nonveterans.

“Our analysis showed that veterans were about 40 percent more likely to experience severe pain than nonveterans,” said Richard Nahin, PhD, lead author of the analysis.

“Younger veterans were substantially more likely to report suffering from severe pain than nonveterans, even after controlling for underlying demographic characteristics. These findings suggest that more attention should be paid to helping veterans manage the impact of severe pain and related disability on daily activities.”

The study is based on data from a survey of over 67,000 adults (6,647 veterans and 61,049 nonveterans) who responded to questions about the persistence and intensity of their pain. The vast majority of veterans were men (92%), while most of the nonveterans were women (56%). The survey did not identify any specific aspects of military service, including branch of the armed forces, years of service, or whether the veteran served in a combat role.

More veterans (65%) than nonveterans (56%) reported having some type of pain in the previous three months.  They were also more likely to have severe pain from back pain, joint pain, migraine, neck pain, sciatica and jaw pain.

Younger veterans (8%) were substantially more likely to suffer from severe pain than nonveterans (3%) of similar ages.

“These findings show that we still have much more to do to help our veterans who are suffering from pain,” said Josephine Briggs, MD, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). “This new knowledge can help inform effective health care strategies for veterans of all ages. More research is needed to generate additional evidence-based options for veterans managing pain.”

Veterans Complain About VA Pain Care

The survey adds to the growing body of evidence that military veterans are more likely to suffer from physical and mental health issues, and that their problems are not being adequately addressed by the Veterans Administration, which provides health services to 6 million veterans and their families. According to a recent VA study, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

One of them was Peter Kaisen. In August, the 76-year old Navy veteran committed suicide outside a VA Medical Center in Northport, New York.  Kaisen’s widow told Newsday that her husband had chronic back pain, but VA doctors had told him there was nothing more they could do to ease his suffering.

According to a 2014 Inspector General’s study, more than half of the veterans being treated at the VA have chronic pain, as well as other conditions that contribute to it, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In recent months, dozens of veterans have complained to Pain News Network that their treatment grew worse after the VA adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s opioid prescribing guidelines, which discourage doctors from prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

“I am a Vietnam era veteran who has had testicular cancer, prostate cancer, hip joint cancer, and have been living with an inoperable spinal cord tumor,” wrote Tommy Garrett. “I cannot get the VA to prescribe OxyContin that civilian doctors have had me on for 17 years.”

“I received epidurals for 10 years and also I received pain medication for 6 years. The VA quit giving me epidurals and also took me off Vicodin,” said Mitch Kepner. “(Before) I was active and now I just lay around and do nothing wishing I was dead. I have no life, everything I do is a struggle. I don't want pity. I don't want compassion. I don't want (anything) from anybody. I just want Vicodin back so I can function.”

After several years of taking morphine to relieve pain from chronic arthritis, Vietnam veteran Ron Pence had his dosage cut in half by VA doctors – who want him to take Cymbalta, a non-opioid originally developed to treat anxiety. After reading about Cymbalta's side effects, Pence refused to take it.

“Why start something like that when what I was taking had no side effects for me and was working fine? I am sure the pills they are pushing will end in a lot more deaths and terrible disabilities and suffering,” wrote Pence in a PNN guest column.

“We are in one of the most advanced countries in the world medically, yet the doctors and politicians will not use that knowledge to ease pain and suffering. We have to find a solution.”

The VA’s Opioid Policy Hurts Veterans Like Me

(Editor’s note: In 2015, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law legislation that requires the Veterans Administration to adopt the CDC’s “voluntary” opioid guidelines, which discourage the prescribing of opioids for chronic pain. Over the past year, the VA has implemented the guidelines throughout its healthcare system, which provides medical services to 6 million veterans -- over half of whom suffer from chronic pain. One of them is Ron Pence.)

By Ron Pence, Guest Columnist

I am a Vietnam veteran who turned to the VA health system in 2001, when I started having pain from polymyositis and chronic arthritis, the worst kind of arthritis caused by autoimmune disease. My own body was attacking my joints and muscles. They said CPK enzyme levels in my blood were very high and in danger of shutting down my kidneys.

Back then the VA cared about vets. I was started on pain meds and they moved me up the ladder as the pain increased.

The head of rheumatology started me on morphine because he said it was the only drug he had to offer. He was right. After 3 pain management visits, 3 more doctors agreed I was on the correct needed dose. X rays of the arthritis in my back ruled out chiropractic care.

I was on the same dose of morphine for 9 years. It worked well enough for me to function and to live alone. The VA promised to continue my opiate therapy as long as I did not break their rules.

After 5 years or so they came out with a new contract and forced us to sign it. I was told either sign it or you don’t gets your meds. I was never accused of breaking their rules and never have. I pointed out the new contract was totally in favor of the VA doing as they please and was signed under duress.

RON PENCE

RON PENCE

Now out of the clear blue they cut my dose in half over two months and they may cut it completely because I refuse to take terrible and dangerous psychiatric drugs with the worst side effects. Just search the Internet for “Cymbalta side effects” and you’ll see what I mean.

The VA is really pushing these drugs that I would not give to a dog. They are a lobotomy in a pill. I WILL DIE BEFORE TAKING THEM. They take away your ability to think, speak and make decisions; and come with side effects such as permanent blindness, kidney stones and suicide, even in non-depressed people with no mental problems. Even trying to get off this drug under a doctor's care can end in death for some people. Besides that, it’s nothing more than a sugar pill for the pain.

Why start something like that when what I was taking had no side effects for me and was working fine? I am sure the pills they are pushing will end in a lot more deaths and terrible disabilities and suffering.

My companion almost died after taking Enbril. The VA doctors write prescriptions for Enbril, Humira, etc. as if they were candy. Four shots a month cost $2,000. Far more dangerous than opiates, but someone lines their pockets and the drug companies make over $10 billion a year on them. There is more here than meets the eye.

The CDC in Atlanta says their opioid prescribing guidelines are just that, guidelines. Doctors at the VA must not be smart enough to know what a guideline is. They’re pushing very dangerous, expensive and destructive drugs to replace opioids. Pray and try to find a substitute that works. Doctors sit and lie about what the guidelines say. The stress of not knowing if you are going to be cut off completely is as bad as the pain.

Since the big cutback in my pain medication, I am far less functional. Just standing up 30 seconds to snatch my clothes out of the washer puts me in hollering pain and I fall back into my wheelchair. Cutting the meds even makes it hard to get on the toilet. I am 70 and live alone. My family brings me food to keep me from starving most of the time. I have lost over 90 pounds.

This is going to mean the nursing home for a lot of people like me and I cannot stand the thought of living or existing in a nursing home. Karma is going to get a lot of people making these bad decisions.

I don’t take complaints to Washington because I am old and an 8 mile trip to Walmart wipes me out for a couple of days. This is a fight for the younger guys.

We are in one of the most advanced countries in the world medically, yet the doctors and politicians will not use that knowledge to ease pain and suffering. We have to find a solution.

Ron Pence lives in Florida. Ron enlisted in the Air Force in 1963 – at the age of 17 -- and served his country for 6 years.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Did Untreated Pain Lead Veteran to Commit Suicide?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Two congressmen are asking for an investigation into the apparent suicide of a Navy veteran suffering from chronic back pain outside a veteran’s hospital in New York.

76-year old Peter Kaisen of Islip was found dead inside his car in a parking lot Sunday at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport. He suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head.

Kaisen’s wife told Newsday that he suffered from back pain and was unable to sit for more than a few minutes. She said doctors at the VA hospital told her husband there was nothing more they could do to ease his suffering.

The VA this year implemented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s opioid guidelines, which discourage doctors from prescribing opioid pain medication for chronic pain. Since those guidelines were adopted, several veterans have complained to Pain News Network that their opioid doses have been reduced or stopped altogether. It's not clear if that's what happened to Kaisen.

The VA provides health services to 6 million veterans and their families. Over half of the veterans treated by the VA have chronic pain.   

A longtime friend and fellow veteran told the Associated Press that Kaisen visited the VA hospital once or twice a month. He lives about 30 miles away.

"We all think there is probably some depression," said Tom Farley said. "Maybe he wanted meds. Maybe he wanted to sit and talk. I don't know. None of the family knows."

A spokesman for the hospital declined to discuss Kaisen's medical history, but said the hospital had no evidence that he sought treatment at the emergency room on the day he died.

"The Northport VA stands ready to cooperate with any investigative body that believes more information is needed," the hospital's director, Philip Moschitta, said in a statement. "At no point did the staff in this facility fail to do the right thing by our patients."

PETER KAIsEN

PETER KAIsEN

But two hospital employees told The New York Times that Kaisen had been frustrated he could not see a doctor in the emergency room, where he went to seek help related to his mental health.

“He went to the E.R. and was denied service,” one employee said. “And then he went to his car and shot himself."

“Someone dropped the ball. They should not have turned him away,” another worker said.

Congressmen Peter King and Steve Israel sent a letter to the FBI and the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday asking for a "transparent" investigation into Kaisen’s death.

"It is critical that our nation's veterans feel they can trust the services provided by their VA medical facilities, and that their health and wellbeing is of the upmost priority," they wrote.

Kaisen’s wife told Newsday her husband served on a Navy supply ship, the USS Denebola, from 1958 to 1962.

According to a 2014 Inspector General’s study, more than half of the veterans being treated at the VA have chronic pain, as well as other conditions that contribute to it, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Because veterans are at high risk of opioid abuse and overdose, the VA implemented an Opioid Safety Initiative in 2013 to discourage its doctors from prescribing the drugs. The number of veterans prescribed opioids fell by 110,000, but alarms were raised when some vets turned to street drugs or suicide to stop their pain.

According to a VA study released in July, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day.

 

Prescribed Opioids Not Linked to Veterans’ Heroin Use

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new study of U.S. military veterans found a strong link between heroin use and the abuse of opioid pain medication, but with an important caveat:  the heroin use was associated with the non-medical use of opioid painkillers.

Having chronic pain was also not found to be a significant risk factor for heroin use.

The ten-year study by researchers at Brown and Yale Universities followed nearly 3,400 veterans at nine Veterans Affairs facilities who were participating in the Veterans Aging Cohort Study (VACS).

Of the 500 veterans who started using heroin during the study, 386 of them also began using prescription painkillers non-medically.

"Our findings demonstrate a pattern of transitioning from non-medical use of prescription opioids to heroin use that has only been demonstrated in select populations," said study co-author David Fiellin, a Yale public health and medical professor and director of the VACS study.

"Our findings are unique in that our sample of individuals consisted of patients who were receiving routine medical care for common medical conditions."

Even after statistically accounting for other risks -- such as race, income, use of other drugs, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression -- researchers found that veterans who began misusing painkillers were 5.4 times more likely to begin using heroin. Other major risk factors for heroin use include being male (2.6 times greater risk) and abusing stimulant drugs (2.1 times greater risk).

Veterans who received a short-term prescription for an opioid medication had a 1.7 times greater risk of starting heroin. But having a long-term prescription for opioids was not found to be a significant risk factor. And neither was having chronic pain.

“In our final model, pain interference in daily life was not a significant predictor of heroin initiation,” said lead author Brandon Marshall, an assistant professor in the Brown University School of Public Health.

Despite those findings, researchers recommend that all veterans should be screened for painkiller abuse, including those with legal prescriptions.

"This paper shows that, as a general clinical practice, particularly for this population which does experience a lot of chronic pain and other risks for substance use including PTSD, screening for non-medical painkiller use, whether you are prescribing an opioid or not, may be effective to prevent even more harmful transitions to heroin or other drugs," said Marshall, adding that veterans have a "constellation of risks" for substance abuse.

The study, published in the journal Addiction, did not identify the source of the opioids that were used non-medically. The National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs supported the study.

Under a federal spending bill passed by Congress and signed into law last year by President Obama, the Veteran’s Administration is required to follow the CDC's “voluntary” opioid guidelines, which discourage opioid prescribing for chronic pain. Since those guidelines were adopted, many veterans have complained to Pain News Network that their opioid doses have been reduced and they live in daily pain.

“They just cut my meds to one oxycodone every 12 hours, which gives me absolutely no relief,” wrote Harvey Williams, a Vietnam vet. “There must be something that the Veterans Administration can do to treat severe pain in the Vets. It's not fair for us to be sprayed with Agent Orange, return back to the United States, develop diabetes and in turn have severe neuropathy and pain for the rest of our lives and not be treated.”

“My VA doctors did not exam me prior to (cutting) my prescriptions,” wrote retired Army Capt. William Green, a Desert Storm veteran. “I asked how they decided to start reducing when I was reporting ongoing 6-8 on 10 pain scale. He didn't even consult with the doctor I do get ongoing treatment from. The doctor said, ‘We don’t care. We are following CDC guidelines.’”

The VA provides health services to 6 million veterans and their families. Over half of the veterans treated by the VA have chronic pain.   

Wide Disparity in Opioid Doses in Veteran Overdoses

By Pat Anson, Editor

The difference between controlling chronic pain and risking an opioid overdose can vary widely from patient to patient, according to a new study that found the threshold for safe prescribing may be lower than many doctors think.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School and the Veteran Administration’s Ann Arbor Healthcare System studied the medical records of 221 veterans who died from accidental opioid overdoses and compared them to an equal number of veterans who took opioids for chronic pain, but did not overdose.

The average dose that the overdose victims had been prescribed was over 70 percent higher than what the comparison group received. The average daily dose for the overdose patients was 98 MEM (morphine-equivalent milligrams), compared to about 48 MEM for those who did not overdose.

But the researchers did not find a specific dose that clearly differentiated between patients at risk and those not at risk for overdose. In fact, some overdose victims had prescriptions for well under 50 MEM daily.

Despite that discrepancy, the researchers recommend lowering the recommended dosage threshold below 100 MEM. Lowering the number of high doses, they say, would help more people than it hurts.

“As the United States grapples with the rising toll of accidental overdoses due to opioids, our findings suggest that changing clinical practices to avoid escalating doses for patients with chronic pain could make a major difference in the number of patients who die,” said first author Amy Bohnert, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan.

Bohnert was part of the “Core Expert Group” that helped draft the CDC’s controversial guidelines for opioid prescribing. Two co-authors, Joseph Logan and Deborah Dowell, work at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, which oversaw the guidelines’ development.

The CDC guidelines recommend that primary care physicians start at the “lowest effective dosage” of opioids and should avoid increasing dosages over 90 MEM. Even a daily dose as low as 50 MEM increases overdose risk, according to the guidelines.

“Avoiding prescribing large doses also has the benefit of reducing the amount of the medications going to patients’ homes that has the potential to be taken by others who live with the patient, like children and teenagers,” said Bohnert. “This is important because an opioid that is a larger dose per pill, compared to a smaller one, is going to be deadly to a child or adult who hasn’t been taking the medication regularly.”

The study, which was funded by the Veterans Administration, is published in the journal Medical Care.

The study was based on the veterans’ medical, pharmacy and death certificate records. It did not include those who died by suicide using opioids, or veterans receiving hospice or palliative care.

Veterans were selected only if they filled a prescription for an opioid medication and had a diagnosis of chronic pain during the years 2002 to 2009. The researchers included veterans who had been prescribed codeine, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, hydromorphone, fentanyl, meperidine, pentazocine, propoxyphene, or methadone.

Under a federal spending bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, the Veteran’s Administration is required to follow the “voluntary” CDC opioid guidelines. The VA provides health services to 6 million veterans and their families. Over half of the veterans treated by the VA are in chronic pain.   

VA to Adopt CDC Opioid Guidelines

By Pat Anson, Editor

The massive $1.1 trillion spending bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last week contains an early Christmas present for the nation’s veterans.

Or it could be a lump of coal -- depending on your view about opioid pain medication.

Buried in the 2,009 page document is a provision requiring the Veteran’s Administration to implement a number of measures to stop the “overdose epidemic” among veterans, including adoption of the controversial opioid prescribing guidelines being developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Those guidelines, which discourage primary care physicians from prescribing opioids for chronic pain, have now become official government policy at a federal agency before they’re even finalized. 

“To address mounting concerns about prescription drug abuse and an overdose epidemic among veterans, the bill directs VA to adopt the opioid prescribing guidelines developed by the Centers of Disease Control; to develop IT systems to track and monitor opioid prescriptions; to ensure all VA medical facilities are equipped with opioid receptor antagonists to treat drug overdoses; and to provide additional training to medical personnel who prescribe controlled substances,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), Vice Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a summary of the omnibus bill sent to colleagues.

The VA was also instructed to report to Congress within 90 days on alternative treatments to opioids, as well as “how VA can better facilitate the use of safe and effective complementary and integrative health therapies for pain management.”  

The CDC, which recently delayed implementation of the opioid guidelines after widespread criticism from patients and advocacy groups, has repeatedly said the guidelines are “voluntary” and not intended for anyone other than primary care physicians.

But adoption of the guidelines by a federal agency that provides health care services to over 6 million patients is an early sign they will have a much broader impact, voluntary or not. Critics have warned that state regulators, licensing boards and professional medical societies could also adopt the CDC's guidelines, which would likely have a chilling effect on all doctors who prescribe opioids.

"This is disturbing. It doesn't help solve the opioid problem by codifying low evidence or no evidence recommendations," said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

"The opioid crisis is serious, requiring thoughtful interventions that are evidence based.  There are many evidence based recommendations that could be promulgated but have been ignored.  I am very concerned that the soldiers who have sacrificed so much are not going to receive the treatment they deserve."

According to an Inspector General’s study, more than half of the veterans being treated at the VA experience chronic pain, as well as other conditions that contribute to it, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Because veterans are at high risk of opioid abuse and overdose, the VA implemented the Opioid Safety Initiative in 2013 to discourage its doctors from prescribing the drugs. The number of veterans prescribed opioids fell by 110,000, but alarms were raised when some vets turned to street drugs or suicide to stop their pain.

"Veterans are now required to see a prescriber every 30 days, but at the El Paso VA, they are unable to get an appointment, so they go without, or they do something they shouldn't — they buy them on the street," Rep. Beto O'Rourke, (D-Texas), told Military Times. “At a minimum, these veterans are suffering and in some cases, I would connect that suffering to suicide."

Several veterans have written to Pain News Network recently about their difficulty obtaining opioids from the VA for their chronic pain.

“The VA will only prescribe 10 mg oxycodone 3 times a day. This gives me no relief at all and now I'm very worried about what may come next,” wrote an Army veteran with diabetic nerve pain who had a toe amputated. “When I asked to have this increased my VA PC (primary care) doc raised my gabapentin script and says if that doesn't work for my increased pain levels we may try Lyrica next . He ignores my statement that 15 mg of Oxy works in reducing my pain by 30%”

“After taking opiate pain meds for nearly 15 years, the VA has now decided to take them away. I had a decent life while on these, and now they have cut them in half, I am in constant pain. I wish some of these people that make these stupid decisions had to live like I do,” a Vietnam veteran who had a leg amputated above the knee wrote to PNN.

“The pain meds allowed me to have some semblance of a normal life. Now that is gone. I don't know what I am going to do. I can understand now why vets turn to alcohol and other street drugs, because you have to do something to take the edge off this constant pain. But do they care? Not one whit. They practically throw this stuff at you when I first started going, now it is up to me to figure out how I am going to make it without any of it.”

The federal spending bill provides $7.2 billion in funding for the CDC, which is $278 million more than last year.  That includes $70 million to support state efforts to address prescription opioid abuse – more than triple the amount included in last year’s bill. 

The bill also provides $3.8 billion to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is $160 million more than last year.  Nearly $50 million is directed to address the “epidemic” of prescription drug and heroin overdose, $25 million is for addiction treatment in high-risk states, $12 million for naloxone distribution in 10 states; and $10 million for drug abuse prevention efforts in up to 20 states.