Vern Buchanan Calls for Congress to Back his Veteran Overmedication and Suicide Prevention Act

With Veterans Day this week, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., doubled down on his “Veteran Overmedication and Suicide Prevention Act.

Buchanan has been pushing the bill “to investigate the link between addictive opioids and veteran suicides” in recent years. He brought it back at the start of the year with U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., as the main co-sponsor. Other backers include Florida Republican U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz Balart, Scott Franklin and John Rutherford and Florida Democrat U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy.

The bill “would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to review the deaths of all veterans it treated who died by suicide or from a drug overdose in the last five years” and the “new data generated by the bill will be used to better treat veterans suffering from both mental and physical injuries.”

Back in April, Buchanan announced that Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and AMVETS are all backing his proposal.

“The high rates of suicide and drug overdose deaths among veterans are unacceptable,” Buchanan said. “This legislation is critical to learning if prescription drugs, particularly opioid painkillers, are a contributing factor in suicide-related deaths of veterans”

The bill was sent to the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee at the start of the year. At the beginning of February, the committee sent it to its Subcommittee on Health. But the bill has been stalled there since then and there is no companion measure over in the U.S. Senate.

On Wednesday, Buchanan and U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., sent a letter to the committee’s leadership and stressed the high stakes as they called for the bill’s passage.

“The high rate of suicide and drug overdose deaths among veterans is unacceptable,” Buchanan said. “This legislation is critical to learning if prescription drugs, particularly opioid painkillers, are a contributing factor in veteran suicides. I encourage my colleagues on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to pass this bill to further address these untimely deaths.”

“According to the VA, at least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017 – nearly 17 per day. Veteran suicides account for nearly 15 percent of all suicides in the United States,” Buchanan’s office noted.

The letter Buchanan and Connolly sent was as follows:

We write today as the lead sponsors of H.R. 67, the Veteran Overmedication and Suicide Prevention Act, to request the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs take action on our bipartisan bill to study the link between addictive opioids and the alarmingly high rate of suicide among veterans.

As you know, nearly 17 veterans die by suicide each day, a rate nearly twice as high as civilians. Due in part to this troubling statistic, we believe this bill is not only commonsense, but entirely necessary to help combat this tragic epidemic

Our legislation, endorsed by three of the nation’s major veterans service organizations, would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to review the deaths of all veterans it treated who died by suicide or from a drug overdose in the last five years. This important new information will be used to better treat veterans suffering from both mental and physical injuries and is critical to learning if prescription drugs, particularly opioid painkillers, are a contributing factor in suicide-related veteran deaths.

The VFW, which endorsed our legislation, stated that “Understanding the impact of overmedication and veteran suicide begins with data. This legislation will help illuminate the seriousness and scope of this causation. Reducing the number of service members and veterans who die by suicide has been a priority for the VFW and will remain so until it is no longer needed. We must do whatever it takes to save the almost 20 service members and veterans who die by suicide every day.”

According to a September 2019 VA report:

At least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017.

Veteran suicides account for about 15 percent of all suicides in the United States, with a veteran committing suicide every 72 minutes.

The VA has a history of freely prescribing opioid pain medication to veterans, reaching its highest level in 2012 with more than 438,000 long-term opioid patients.

Unfortunately, despite the VA taking steps to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions it dispenses by 70 percent between 2012 and 2020, veterans are still committing suicide at a startling rate.

Given the recent call by seven former VA secretaries to create a National Warrior Call Day to raise awareness about military and veteran suicides, and the fact that more than 93,000 Americans died from an overdose last year, it is clear we must do more to end this crisis and help reduce this needless and preventable loss of life.

Furthermore, earlier this year, the U.S. House passed legislation that included our bipartisan amendment to fund the review called for in our bill and to provide a report to Congress. Thank you for your service and commitment to our nation’s many veterans and I look forward to your prompt reply to this critically important issue.

KEVIN DERBY
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