Sought by the family of Marine veteran Jason Simcakoski, who died of an accidental overdose at the Tomah, Wisconsin, VA Medical Center in 2014, the changes are designed to strengthen VA pain management guidance and training, improve prescription oversight and promote alternative therapies.
"The bill recognizes that too often, these drugs have been used inappropriately and ineffectively, and because they are so powerful and so addictive, this inappropriate use is very dangerous," said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who sponsored the veterans provisions along with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which passed the Senate on Wednesday by a vote of 92-2 and is expected to be signed by President Obama, authorizes $181 million in new funding for a range of measures designed to fight the national opiate abuse epidemic.
Simcakoski died Aug. 30, 2014, in the Tomah hospital's short-stay mental health unit from "mixed drug toxicity," having taken 13 prescribed medications, including several that cause respiratory depression, in a 24-hour period.
Staff psychiatrists had added new medications to Simcakoski's lengthy list of prescriptions in the days preceding his death and according to Baldwin, both Simcakoski and his family members had questioned staff whether the treatment was appropriate.
Veterans also told a Center for Investigative Reporting journalist that distribution of narcotics was so rampant at Tomah, they nicknamed the place "Candy Land" and the center's chief of staff Dr. David Houlihan the "Candy Man."
According to Baldwin, the patient advocacy measures in the new legislation were most important to the Simcakoski family.
"In Jason's case, he and his family questioned the treatment. But nevertheless, the patient advocate answered to the prescribing physician and the hospital chief of staff. That's not independence," she said.
According to a 2014 VA inspector general report, the Veterans Health Administration issued 1.68 million prescriptions for opioids to 440,000 outpatients, or 7.7 percent of all VA patients, in 2012.
The investigation also found that on average, VA has issued more than one opiate prescription per narcotic-prescribed patient for the past two years.
Baldwin said the Simcakoski family worked hard to make sure the VA provisions were included in the final bill, and she praised their efforts.
"This bill may have a real impact on the chances of [a veteran] becoming addicted," Baldwin said. "My goal is to prevent Jason's tragedy from happening to other veterans and their families."
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.