HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – A new Veterans Administration policy is making it more difficult for local veterans to obtain medicines for chronic pain that are potentially addictive.
Doctors say roughly one-third of the American population suffers from chronic pain, and many are veterans. But veterans who are used to being prescribed powerful pain medicines to treat their conditions are having to adjust to a new policy.
The Opioid Safety Initiative requires VA doctors consider alternatives to pain medicines for their patients, including behavior modification, massage therapy, yoga and acupuncture, among other means. The government has said the initiative is showing early promise of lowering dependency on painkillers.
“We’ve been able to identify that these medicines are not without both short term and long term consequences to the patient,” said Dr. Terri Lockhart, Chief of Primary Care at the Hampton VA Medical Center. “It’s not a cold-turkey process. It’s tapered medications under the guidance of experts in a multi-disciplinary team.”
But Robert Artley, a veteran from Chesapeake, said that was not his experience at the Hampton center: “There was no slow withdrawal, nothing. It was cold turkey. What were the after-effects of that? The morphine alone, I was having withdrawals.”
Partially paralyzed eight years ago, Artley moved to Hampton Roads with a prescription for morphine and Lyrica he obtained from VA doctors in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. He said doctors at Hampton VA Medical Center wanted to try other alternatives. And they did for over two years before returning him to morphine and Lyrica.
“The VA’s I’ve dealt with in the past, never in my life have I dealt with a VA like this,” Artley said. “I got to Williamsport, and you couldn’t ask for a nicer doctor, and I get here, and it’s by far the worst VA I’ve ever been to in my life, by far.”
Desert Storm veteran Christine Rayfield and her husband Earl, who served during the Vietnam era, had both been in pain management for about 15 years. They said they were unable to transfer their VA prescriptions from doctors in Chicago when they moved to Suffolk last fall.
“It’s terrible. It’s extremely painful,” Rayfield said. “My pain level stays at probably an eight or nine out of ten all the time.”
VA doctors in Chicago prescribed morphine and oxycodone for the Rayfields, but when they got to Hampton, Christine’s initial visit when poorly.
“He started belittling me, and berating me, and making fun of me,” she said. “So this is going on for about thirty minutes until I was in tears. I’m a combat veteran.”
Rayfield said she was encouraged to be weaned off the morphine, or at least get a blocker to avoid withdrawal.
“He said, ‘no, you got yourself into this, you get yourself out,'” she told WAVY.com.
Then Rayfield’s husband got a call cancelling his appointment later that week.
Because of patient privacy laws, Hampton VA officials told WAVY.com they can’t comment on specific cases. But director Michael Dunfee said the staff takes these cases seriously.
“When patients are dissatisfied with VA services, for whatever reason, we always want to dig into that and look at the root cause,” he said.
After nine months of frustration, the Rayfields decided to switch to the VA Medical Center in Durham, where they were able to get morphine and oxycodone.
“We got to Durham , and they did more in five hours than the VA in Hampton Roads could do in nine months,” Rayfield said.
When asked about the inconsistency, Lockhart couldn’t explain to 10 On Your Side how the couple was able to get the prescriptions at a different VA center.
A Durham VA spokesperson told WAVY.com, “the practices of opioid prescription can vary based on the experience and expertise of the provider and the unique circumstances of the patient. If opioids are used for treatment of chronic pain, we will be sure they are used safely and effectively.”
Dunfee said he will look into how the new policy is working at the Hampton VA center: “We’ll follow up, investigate if necessary, look into issues and take any necessary actions.”