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The bill seeks to connect Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health providers to a national network of state-based prescription drug monitoring programs to help identify and prevent opioid abuse.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As an opioid crisis continues to grip the nation, Rep. Neal Dunn has joined the battle to end the epidemic.

Dunn, R-Panama City, on Sept. 26 filed the Veterans Opioid Abuse Prevention Act, HR 3832, which seeks to connect Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health providers to a national network of state-based prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs).

PDMPs track prescribing data to identify abuse patterns. VA doctors already consult state-based PDMPs before prescribing potentially dangerous pain medications to veterans, but they “lack the ability to consult a national network,” according to a news release from Dunn’s office.

Steve Crocker, a veteran who lives in Holmes County, said the bill could assist veterans hooked on pain pills and other prescription drugs. He is prescribed painkillers for degenerative disc disease and said he currently is in a similar program that prevents “doctor shopping.”
“This bill that Mr. Dunn is trying to push through, in the long run it’s going to help veterans,” said Crocker, who served in the Navy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “He’s trying to keep people from dying.”

Crocker’s medical issues aren’t service-related, and he clarified that he is not addicted to or abusing his medication. But even he knows how strong opioids can be. He initially was prescribed 120 painkillers a month but realized 90 would do fine for the intense pain in his back and knees.

“I’m trying to wean myself off them,” Crocker said. “I can’t get off them completely because of my medical condition. But I don’t need to take so many.”

Dunn said veterans are at a high risk for opioid addiction and related issues, including suicide, because they get injured much more frequently than those who don’t serve.

“This was in response to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis,” a report issued in July, said Dunn, who served in the Army and is a House VA Committee member. “This is a good bill. I feel it’s going to get a lot of bipartisan support.”

The commission studied “ways to combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and the opioid crisis, which was responsible for more than 50,000 deaths in 2015,” according to a statement from the White House. The number of veterans with “opioid-use disorders” increased by 55 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to news outlet Frontline.

Dale Heppe, a Gulf War veteran who served in the Air Force and now is a mental health counselor with A Peace of Mind Therapy in Panama City, said the bill’s heart is in the right place, but treating opioid addiction should go further.

“This bill that he’s trying to pass, it’s more a good step but it’s a Band-Aid,” said Heppe, whose clients include veterans dealing with mental health issues. “It’s not addressing the problem of why they need medication.”

Instead of prescribing pills, Heppe recommended other treatment methods for veterans with physical and psychological problems. He said therapy is a “perfect step” in the right direction for veteran recovery, along with educating them on opioid addiction.

“It’s wonderful they’re starting to be aware of this, but hopefully they put more effort into the root cause of this issue,” Heppe said.

Dunn said the bill is expected to go before the House VA Healthcare Subcommittee soon and then will make its way through the general House and Senate. It is co-sponsored by several other national representatives.