VA curbing opioid prescriptions but some safety measures lacking, report finds

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Chris Riley has seen the opioid crisis firsthand. He spent four years as an active duty combat medic and then served another eight years as an Army reservist. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Chris Riley has seen the opioid crisis firsthand. He spent four years as an active duty combat medic and then served another eight years as an Army reservist. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

In response to the deadly opioid crisis, the Department of Veterans Affairs has significantly cut the number of prescription painkillers prescribed by its doctors over the last five years, but a new report finds the VA is falling short on some of its own safety initiatives.

A Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday found VA doctors often failed to check state databases to ensure patients weren’t getting the addictive pills elsewhere, among other issues.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Opioid crisis in Arizona]

The opioid crisis has hit veterans especially hard. In 2011, veterans were twice as likely to die from an opioid overdose as civilians were.

Chris Riley has seen the opioid crisis firsthand. He spent four years as an active duty combat medic and then served another eight years as an Army reservist.

“When I left the service, I was homeless. I was drinking a lot, doing a lot of drugs,” said Riley, including opioids.

[RELATED: ER visits for opioid overdose up 30%, CDC says]

He got treatment at a substance abuse center called Crossroads, Inc. in Phoenix and now he works there, where he regularly sees veterans trying to overcome opioid addiction.

“They're given a prescription for chronic back pain or knee pain, and then before you know it, they're abusing it,” said Riley. “And then, unfortunately, that turns into heroin use.”

In last quarter of 2013, roughly one out of every six VA patients got an opioid prescription, according to the GAO. In the first quarter of 2018, about one out of every 11 patients got a prescription.

[RELATED: Leaders: Securing border part of fix for opioid crisis]

That represents a drop of 267,000 veterans; from 665,786 in the first quarter of 2013 to 398,899 in the first quarter of 2018.

Despite the significant drop, the report highlighted several areas of concern in the execution of the VA’s own safety initiatives, which were launched in 2013.

GAO investigators examined 53 veterans who were prescribed long-term opioid therapy. In 40 of the cases, VA doctors failed to run names through state-run prescription drug monitoring databases.

[RELATED: Clean out you medicine cabinet! The DEA wants your drugs]

“When people are addicted to these medications, they're going to doctor shop. They're going to find any way they can to get these medications,” said Riley. “If you're not checking the database that's out there, you could be handing somebody medication they just filled five hours earlier in the day [somewhere else].”

The report found VA doctors failed to administer urine tests in 20 out of the 53 cases reviewed, tests designed to ensure veterans use their prescriptions properly. In 12 of the cases, there was no signed record the doctor informed the veteran of the risks and benefits of long-term opioid therapy.

In a statement, the VA said it agreed with the GAO’s recommendations and will take steps to address the issues within the next year. 

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Derek StaahlDerek Staahl is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor who loves covering stories that matter most to Arizona families.

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Derek Staahl

This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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