Opioid prescriptions at Ralph H. Johnson VA decrease nearly 50 percent over 5 years

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center has seen a nearly 50 percent decrease in the number of opioid prescriptions, according to new data released Monday.

In an effort to be "the most transparent agency in government", the Department of Veteran Affairs released data pertaining to the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed at medical centers across the United States.

"I think it sets the tone for how we feel about opioid prescribing," said the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center's Chief of Pharmacy Sharon Castle. "But it also leads the way in the opioid crisis to bring other people to respond and report and be more aware."

This data, collected over a five-year period from 2013-2017, shows the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston with a 46 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions. In 2012 the prescribing rate was estimated at 12 percent, later falling to 6 percent in 2017.

While the national data was collected and documented over the last five years, Castle said pharmacists at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center started to crack down on opioid prescriptions back in 2008.

"We really try to improve the veterans understanding of the processes and alternative therapies that are available to them," she said.

Some of those alternatives include different prescriptions, physical therapy, acupuncture and even group therapy.

But some of these different options may not work for everyone, which could leave some vets upset.

"I had people in my group that said I come here in pain and you give me counseling, you give me fish oil... and I still have the pain," said James Rockwell, of West Ashley.

Rockwell has given 40 years of federal service to his country; at least 20 of them in the US Army. He's used alternative therapies to deal with some of his chronic pain.

"One of the things I learned in the pain management clinic is are you going to let your pain become you?" Rockwell said. "Or are you going to realize that you're more than the pain. Attitude is everything."

"Our veterans have been overall pretty happy with the initiative," Castle said. "They've been positive about the work we're trying to do to try and resolve their pain."

Officials with the Department of Veteran Affairs state because the needs and conditions of veterans may be different at each facility, the rates of the use of opioids may also be different for that reason, and cannot be compared directly.

Castle added the data released includes all opioid prescriptions, both chronic and short-term.

"I don't doubt there's a crisis in this nation with the opioids," Rockwell said. "I think they've been vastly over-prescribed in the past.

"It's really a balancing act with these situations because they do have legitimate pain syndromes," Castle said. "So working with them to ultimately prescribe things or offer alternative therapies that treats their pain is really what they want."

The prescribing rate information will be updated semi-annually, on Jan. 15 and July 15 of each year, according to the department's website.

William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia saw a 19 percent decrease over the five-year period.

The El Paso, Tex. VA clinic saw the greatest reduction by 66 percent.

Copyright 2018 WCSC. All rights reserved.