- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Investigators have yet to find evidence of a secret waiting list or patients who died while awaiting care in an ongoing investigation of the VA hospital in Phoenix, a Veterans Affairs official told Congress on Wednesday, contradicting explosive reports last week.

“To date, we found no evidence of a secret list and we have found no patients who have died because they’ve been on a wait list,” Dr. Robert Petzel, under secretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, said at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. “If the allegations are true, they’re absolutely unacceptable.”

The department’s inspector general is looking into allegations that the Phoenix facility put patients on a secret waiting list to make it look like wait times for appointments were improving. Veterans remained on this list for months and 40 of them allegedly died while waiting for care.

Several Arizona lawmakers have called for the Phoenix facility’s director to resign, and President Obama has asked for a full department investigation.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the committee, promised to hold hearings once the inspector general’s report is done.

Meanwhile, the committee is looking into other allegations that VA facilities overprescribe opiate pain medication, which sometimes leads to addiction to the pain pills.

Mr. Sanders called it an “epidemic.”

“While opiates can be quite effective, then also come with significant risks,” he said. “Therefore it is critical these medications are supplied to the right patients with proper monitoring.”

Dr. Petzel said the VA is currently prescribing opioids for 650,000 veterans. About half of all veterans being treated at the VA have some type of chronic pain, like recurring back pain from the rigors of military life, he said.

Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and ranking member, said he was concerned doctors would take the easy way out, noting that it’s much easier to write a prescription for pain medicine than to work with a patient on an individualized care plan.

He recalled the story of a veteran who felt he was being treated in the “fastest and seemingly least-expensive” way possible.

Active-duty troops also face high levels of opioid prescriptions, including morphine and oxycodone, for acute pain, like a wound on the battlefield; chronic pain, like a recurring backache; and sometimes for mental health disorders, like post-traumatic stress.

In 2011, 26 percent of active duty troops across all four services were prescribed some sort of opiate, according to Brigadier General Norvell Coots, the deputy commanding general at U.S. Army Medical Command. In 2013, that number dropped just 2 percent to 24 percent.

Though the change is small, Gen. Coots said it represents a change in the culture of military medicine. He said the number will only drop more as the war in Afghanistan ends and there are no more battlefield injuries requiring immediate pain relief.