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U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Helps Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Prevent Overmedication and Combat Suicide Among Veterans

An average of 20 veterans a day die from suicide, accounting for nearly a quarter of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults

WASHINGTON, D.C. ­– Today, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin joined with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to help introduce bipartisan legislation to combat veteran suicide. The Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct an independent expert study on the deaths of all veterans being treated at the VA who died by suicide or from a drug overdose in the last five years. This review would ensure that the VA has accurate information about the relationship between veteran suicides and prescription medication. Additionally, this legislation would direct the VA to perform a more comprehensive review of its behavioral health workforce with a focus on mental health counselors in an effort to address workforce shortages. These professionals will increase access to services and help reduce the incidence of suicide.

An average of 20 veterans a day die from suicide, accounting for nearly a quarter of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults. Since 2001, the rate of veteran suicide has increased by 32 percent. After controlling for age and gender, this makes the risk of suicide 21 percent higher for veterans than the average U.S. adult. Since 2001, there has been a 259 percent increase in narcotics prescriptions. In the largest veteran populations, veterans die from accidental narcotic overdose at a 33 percent higher rate than the rest of the population. Veterans can “double dip” on prescription drugs by filling at the VA and in the community. Although the VA works with State Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, there is no real enforcement.

“I have worked across party lines to hold the VA accountable because too often our veterans are getting hooked on drugs instead of the care they need. I'm proud to continue that work by joining this bipartisan effort led by Senator McCain to confront the overmedication of veterans and prevent suicide deaths,” said Senator Baldwin. “Our veterans and their families deserve solutions to the challenges they face and this bipartisan legislation can help improve and save the lives of those that have served and sacrificed for our country.”

“The tragedy of 20 veterans a day dying from suicide is a national scandal,” said Senator McCain. “Combatting this epidemic will require the best research and understanding about the key causes of veteran suicide, including whether overmedication of drugs, such as opioid pain-killers, is a contributing factor in suicide-related deaths. This legislation would authorize an independent review of veterans who died of suicide or a drug overdose over the last five years to ensure doctors develop safe and effective treatment plans for their veteran patients. We have a long way to go to eradicate veteran suicide, but this legislation builds on important efforts to end the tragedy that continues to claim far too many lives far too soon and I thank my colleagues for their support in our efforts.”

The legislation would require a National Academies of Science study to review:

  • The total number of veterans who died by suicide death in the last five years;
  • The total number of veterans who were involved in a violent, suicide or accidental death
  • The prevalence of medications or illegal substances in the system of each veteran who died;
  • The number of instances in which the veteran was concurrently on multiple medications prescribed by VA physicians or non-VA physicians;
  • The percentage of veterans who are receiving non-medication first-line treatment (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) as treatment and its effectiveness versus other treatments;
  • An analysis, by state, of programs of the VA that collaborate with state Medicaid agencies, including an analysis of the sharing of prescription and behavioral health data for veterans; and
  • Other aspects of care and recommendations to improve the safety and well-being of veterans.

The legislation is also supported by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, AMVETS, and the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Senator Baldwin has a record of working across the aisle on this issue. Last year, Senator Baldwin’s bipartisan VA reform, the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act, was signed into law. The law strengthens the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) opioid prescribing guidelines, puts in place stronger oversight and accountability, and provides safer and more effective pain management services for our nation’s veterans. As a member of the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, Senator Baldwin questioned the VA last week at the subcommittee’s hearing on preventing veteran suicide.

A copy of the legislation is available here.