May 04, 2017

Van Hollen Introduces Bipartisan Legislation to Prevent Overmedication and Combat Suicide Among Veterans

U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) joined Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and a bipartisan group of Senators to introduce legislation aimed at combating veteran suicide. The Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct an independent expert study on the deaths of all veterans being treated at the VA who died by suicide or from a drug overdose in the last five years. This review would ensure that the VA has accurate information about the relationship between veteran suicides and prescription medication. Additionally, this legislation would direct the VA to perform a more comprehensive review of its behavioral health workforce with a focus on mental health counselors in an effort to address workforce shortages. These professionals will increase access to services and help reduce the incidence of suicide.

"America's veterans face many challenges when they return from service, often dealing with unimaginable physical and emotional traumas," said Senator Van Hollen. "Every veteran we lose to suicide is a national tragedy, and we must do everything we can to stop this epidemic. I'm proud to cosponsor this bipartisan legislation to help the VA continue their efforts to save lives and provide our veterans with the care they deserve."

The legislation was also cosponsored by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and Bill Cassidy (R-LA).

The legislation is also supported by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, AMVETS, and the National Board for Certified Counselors.

An average of 20 veterans a day die from suicide, accounting for nearly a quarter of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults. Since 2001, the rate of veteran suicide has increased by 32 percent. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent higher for veterans than the average U.S. adult. Since 2001, there has been a 259 percent increase in narcotics prescriptions. In the largest veteran populations, veterans die from accidental narcotic overdose at a 33 percent higher rate than the rest of the population. Veterans can "double dip" on prescription drugs by filling at the VA and in the community. Although the VA has established State Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, there is no real enforcement.

The legislation would require a National Academies of Science study to review:

  • The total number of veterans who died by suicide death in the last five years;
  • The total number of veterans who were involved in a violent, suicide or accidental death;
  • The prevalence of medications or illegal substances in the system of each veteran who died;
  • The number of instances in which the veteran was concurrently on multiple medications prescribed by VA physicians or non-VA physicians;
  • The percentage of veterans who are receiving non-medication first-line treatment (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) as treatment and its effectiveness versus other treatments;
  • An analysis, by state, of programs of the VA that collaborate with state Medicaid agencies, including an analysis of the sharing of prescription and behavioral health data for veterans; and,
  • Other aspects of care and recommendations to improve the safety and well-being of veterans.