9 Investigates: The VA's painkiller problem

by: Peter Daut Updated:

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SALISBURY, N.C. —

Some veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home to face another battle: addiction to prescription painkillers.

Veterans die from prescription-drug overdoses at nearly twice the national average.

Channel 9 anchor Peter Daut investigated whether they are being overmedicated and what VA hospitals are doing about it.

Spc. Christopher Pesta served one year in Iraq, but that is not where he died.

The 22-year-old was found unresponsive in his barracks at Fort Bragg just days before he planned to propose to his girlfriend.

According to the Army’s autopsy report, Pesta’s sudden death was “complicated by mixed drug toxicity.”

Pesta’s parents believe it was an accidental overdose.

Eight years later, they still have the painkillers the VA prescribed to him for a fractured tailbone.

“I gave them my son, thinking that they were going to take care of him even better than I would take care of him. And they didn't,” Joan Pesta said.

Pesta's parents said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that he was getting treatment at the VA for alcohol abuse.

They believe that alone should have kept the agency from prescribing him a list of opioids and muscle relaxers.

“Because all the drugs they give him say, ‘Do not take with alcohol,’” said Bob Pesta.

According to the VA’s records, across the country veterans are being prescribed more painkillers than ever.

Since 9/11, VA prescriptions for four highly addictive painkillers surged by 270 percent, far outpacing the increase in patients.

And the overdose death rate for veterans is nearly double the general population.

“That’s a big problem,” said addiction specialist Worth Bolton.

Bolton trains social workers on how to treat returning soldiers struggling with addiction.

He believes VA doctors are overmedicating patients as they try to keep up with the need for more complex treatment.

“Part of it is they're overworked and understaffed, and you just got to keep doing what you're doing, because I've got more coming in the door that need it,” Bolton said.

Channel 9 dug through numbers for the Salisbury VA and found between 2001 and 2012, presciptions of painkillers more than quadrupled, with 83.5 prescriptions for every 100 patients.

The hospital’s pain management specialist said that increase reflects the toll on troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We do have a problem,” said Salisbury VA pain management specialist Ripple Sekhon.  “Our veteran population is different from the general population. You know, they do have more pain.”

Salisbury VA officials said they are concerned by the data and have made policy changes to monitor patients more closely.

Higher doses of painkillers now require secondary approval, and a pain school was created to help veterans learn how to manage medications.

“We are taking steps to make sure, you know, we are doing things the right way,” Sekhon said.

Meanwhile, Christopher Pesta’s parents said they will continue to worry for the men and women who like their son, survived war only to battle addiction at home.

“There isn’t a day that doesn’t go by, I don’t think of him,” Joan Pesta said.

Channel 9 also reached out to the chairman of the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs.

“Rising prescription rates are heart-wrenching proof that VA's approach to pain management is failing and in need of an immediate overhaul,” said Rep. Jeff Miller.

To see more of an interactive map on the painkiller situation with veterans, click here.