Graphic courtesy of National Institute of Health
Opioid use in veterans
Graphic courtesy of Department of Veterans Affairs
Treatment for veterans available for those addicted to opioids
By Katrina Moses
Pentagram Staff Writer
Editor’s Note: This is the final part in a three-part story series during Alcohol Awareness Month.
Could one imagine accidently falling off the roof, and having a back injury? The physician prescribes strong prescription painkillers to alleviate the pain in the following weeks. As weeks turn into months, the painkillers really assist with alleviating pain, but the physician stops prescribing it. If that is not the case, it is now difficult to afford it. Where could one go to assist with this back pain? Perhaps they heard that John Doe down the street could provide percocets for an affordable price. When health is an issue and money is too, where can one go to alleviate the pain?
Currently on average, in Virginia, it costs about $25 for one-fourth gram of heroin; for pain pills it is about $1 a milligram for oxycontin, 50 cents per milligram for percocet and $6.50 per milligram for fentanyl.
According to Suzanne Somerville with the Department of Human Services, when prescription drugs get too expensive for those who misuse or are addicted, the lower cost listed above allows them to continue to use these prescription medications. She also provided an example about those who are not prescribed prescription drugs anymore, the low cost allows individuals to use opioids.
“I learned from our Narcan trainings that our brain has opioid receptors,” said Emily Siqveland with the Department of Human Services. “We have these receptors in our brain that are primed for opioids. When you use heroin or other opioids, it binds to receptors. Our body is ready and waiting. That’s why it works and is really effective.”
Narcan is naloxone, which is a safe and effective medication that can reverse an overdose from prescription opioids or heroin. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is more potent than morphine. A small dosage of it is stronger than heroin and 10 times more potent than morphine. It is used in a medical setting as an epidural sometimes or in pain patches. Siqveland’s example is when emergency medical technicians provide it to someone medically when he or she are severely injured, such as a broken arm or lost limb.
Somerville said in a nonmedical setting it is much cheaper. It is usually manufactured overseas. Because fentanyl is so potent, a small amount gives a big reaction to someone who utilizes it often.
“When someone’s tolerance for heroin is high, and heroin is no longer working they try fentanyl,” Somerville said.
When fentanyl is grounded, it resembles heroin, and it sometimes is mixed with heroin or sold as heroin.
Sommerville said heroin was used during the Vietnam War, but it has been appearing periodically. During the Vietnam War, when American Soldiers were injured, heroin was sometimes used as a painkiller.
Sommerville said some veterans probably returned from the war addicted to heroin. She said they may have received help but over the years, different demographics and age groups started using heroin for different reasons. She said now it seems like an epidemic because it has a new role in society regardless of income or race. She pointed out that drugs come back later, but under a different name or look.
Ndidi Mojay, national spokesperson for the Department of Veteran Affairs, said there is help for veterans who have opioid dependence or an opioid use disorder. She said if a veteran feels he or she needs assistance to get off an opioid like heroin or fentanyl, there are a few Food Drug Administration-approved medication options that have been shown to reduce opioid cravings and risk of relapse. There is buprenorphine, which is an opioid medication to treat opioid addiction. It also can help patients stay in treatment. While methadone can assist with opioid treatment, it can also be prescribed for moderate pain.
“In addition to medication and counseling for opioid use disorders, VA’s substance use disorder treatment programs provide screening for and treatment of co-occurring substance use, medical and mental health concerns, as well as connection to VA assistance,” Mojay said.
Suppose a concerned love one feels a veteran needs assistance, there are options as well.
“If the veteran is not yet enrolled in Veteran’s Health Administration for health care, loved ones can help the veteran apply online,” Mojay said. “If a veteran needs encouragement to seek care, reading stories of recovery from veterans may help.”
VA’s mental health and substance abuse treatment programs participate in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Treatment Locator. It allows loved ones to search for VA treatment programs, buprenorphine physicians and more.
Mojay pointed out that a basic medical benefits package for every enrolled veteran is called Care for SUD. She said all major VA facilities provide medication for opioid use disorder. She added that many community-based outpatient clinics also provide medication either by providers at the clinic or via telehealth.
Prevention and education efforts are there to make sure veterans do not start an addiction habit.
“Every enrolled veteran is screened annually for alcohol and tobacco use,” Mojay said. “The department addresses addiction through prevention, education, counseling and medication.”
A few websites Mojay said that are available for veterans who are battling addiction include:
• Apply online for VHA for health care at https://www.choose.va.gov/or call (877) 222-8387.
• A veteran can seek encouragement for care at https://maketheconnection.net/.
Pentagram Staff Writer Katrina Moses can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.