The Army is not properly monitoring the prescribing of medications to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in active-duty soldiers to ensure that antipsychotics and sedatives are not being used, a new government report says. The report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct the Army to monitor prescribing practices in order to detect medications that are discouraged under PTSD treatment guidelines. Those guidelines caution against the use of antipsychotics and benzodiazepines, a class of sedatives, because of their ineffectiveness and potential risk. “The Army does not monitor the prescribing of medications to treat PTSD on an ongoing basis,” says the report, led by the GAO’s director of health care, Debra Draper. “Without such monitoring, the Army may be unable to identify and address practices that are inconsistent with the guideline.”
The Department of Defense did not dispute the GAO recommendations, but argued that it has worked to reduce antipsychotic prescribing.
U.S. Army veteran Bob Swirsky’s face lights up when home health care nurse Jeanette Hutchinson enters his room to check his blood pressure and attend to his body to prevent bedsores. “It’s going to be 120 over 60,” Swirsky says, as Hutchinson inflates the cuff on the meter on his left arm. “Close,” she said, “124 over 60.”
In Connecticut, there are 209,882 veterans, according to the most-recent U.S. census data, and 29.4 percent are over the age of 75. This group forms the core of veterans with chronic medical issues who are targeted by a VA program to treat them in their own homes. Most of the patients in the VA’s Home Based Primary Care (HBPC) program are like Swirsky, who is bed-bound and not able to easily get to the West Haven VA Hospital.
The federal government will pay for disabled veterans now residing in assisted-living facilities, under a bill passed by Congress in December. But the measure doesn’t cover veterans who may move to such places in the future. Disabled veterans living at retirement homes, including those at Seacrest Retirement Center in West Haven, HighVue Manor in Hamden, and Mattatuck Health Care in Waterbury, were told in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that coverage of their housing was a mistake and would end. The coverage began in 2010. U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro obtained extensions for the Connecticut veterans who sought her help and she proposed the language in the bill approved that ensured their coverage would continue.
The Pentagon is not doing enough to make its sexual assault prevention strategy effective, according to a Congressional watchdog agency. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the Department of Defense (DOD) has failed to: identify risk factors that “promote sexual violence” in the military community and in military leadership; communicate the strategy to military bases to ensure consistency among Armed Services prevention programs; and undertake methods to measure if the strategy is working and whether changes are needed. The report to Congress notes that sexual assaults reported to the military increased from 2,800 in 2007 to 6,100 in 2014, but adds that they represent “a fraction” of actual incidents. The report cites a 2014 RAND survey, which estimated that 20,300 active-duty service members were sexually assaulted in the prior year. The report concludes that the DOD needs to take actions to better address the problem.
Very few veterans take advantage of a Pentagon policy designed to make it easier for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to upgrade their discharge status and become eligible to apply for veterans’ benefits, according to a Yale Law Clinic report. At a news conference Monday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., veterans, and Yale law students, blamed the Department of Defense for not adequately publicizing the policy to veterans with less than honorable discharges. Since new guidelines were announced last year, just 201 of tens of thousands of eligible veterans applied for a PTSD-related service upgrade, according to the report. Blumenthal called the statistic “a staggering, outrageous fact.”
“Veterans on the streets of New Haven or Connecticut or the rest of the country have no idea about this,” Blumenthal said. “It takes a vigorous and rigorous effort, which the DOD committed to and they have failed,” he added.
Taking certain prescription painkillers or anxiety medications for long periods of time may increase patients’ risk of death, according to a recent Yale School of Medicine study of veterans. Researchers who examined the medical records of about 64,000 veterans found that patients who took opioids or benzodiazepines long-term, for 90 days or more, had a higher risk of death – from any cause – than those who did not. The risk of death was even greater for patients who took both types of medication at the same time. More than a quarter of the veterans studied were HIV-positive, and they had a higher risk of death than those without the virus. Opioids are painkillers that include Vicodin and Oxycontin while benzodiazepines, such as Valium, typically are prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia.
It has taken more than 40 years, but Connecticut veteran Conley Monk has won his battle to have his military discharge status upgraded and can now receive federal benefits. Monk, 66, and four other Vietnam War veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were granted upgrades by the Pentagon after filing a federal lawsuit in March 2014 against the Armed Forces. The veterans had received Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharges, which they contend were based on behaviors later attributed to PTSD. PTSD was not designated as a medical condition until 1980. The five veterans were given General Under Honorable Conditions discharges.
The federal government would be required to pay for disabled veterans to live in assisted-living facilities, under a bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro. She said the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs has told disabled veterans living in Connecticut retirement homes that the department would no longer cover their living expenses. According to DeLauro, a Democrat who represents the 3rd District, the VA covered payment for such residential care for eligible veterans starting in 2000. But two years ago, veterans were told that the coverage would end. The congresswoman sought and received extensions of the benefits for affected Connecticut veterans who had asked for her help.
Veterans’ exposure to toxic chemicals may harm their families’ health for generations, causing cancer, birth defects and other medical problems, according to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. He is co-sponsoring legislation to require that veterans be informed of their exposure to toxic substances and to establish a research center focusing on the illnesses of exposed veterans’ descendants. Blumenthal, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said that “the dimensions of the problem are unknown at this point” because no one has collected data on it. But, he added, “we know the toxic exposure is there. Science indicates it can cause genetic effects.” He cited brain and blood cancers as potential repercussions.
A month before he left prison, Jeffrey Murdock, a veteran who suffers from depression and multiple sclerosis, thought his future would entail living as a patient in a state mental hospital. But Murdock’s outlook changed drastically after a Veterans Health Administration social worker met with him while he was still in prison, assessed him and arranged for him to receive an apartment, food, clothing and medical care upon his release. Murdock, 55, is one of 50 incarcerated veterans who have been have been helped since June by the VA jail release program, according to Michele Roberts, the social worker who runs it. Assistance includes housing, medical care, medications, and substance abuse treatment, all of which have helped the veterans avoid situations that put them at risk for re-arrest. Just two are back in jail and a third left the program, Roberts said.