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VA Pushing Pills and Getting Vets Hooked on Opiates

VA Pushing Pills and Getting Vets Hooked on Opiates

This story aired on Reveal, a new public radio show from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Before dawn, a government van picked up paratrooper Jeffrey Waggoner for the five-hour drive to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in southern Oregon. His orders: detox from a brutal addiction to painkillers.

He had only the clothes on his back, his watch, an MP3 player and a two-page pain contract the Army made him sign, a promise to get clean.

But instead of keeping Waggoner away from his vice, medical records show the VA hospital in Roseburg kept him so doped up that he could barely stay awake. Then, inexplicably, the VA released him for the weekend with a cocktail of 19 prescription medications, including 12 tablets of highly addictive oxycodone.

Three hours later, Waggoner, 32, was dead of a drug overdose, slumped in a heap in front of his room at the Sleep Inn motel. 

“As a parent, you’d want to know how this happened to your child,” said his father, Greg Waggoner. “You send your child to a hospital to get well, not to die.”

Jeffrey Waggoner’s end and easy access to the narcotics that killed him have become tragically common, The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the agency charged with helping veterans recover from war instead masks their pain with potent drugs, feeding addictions and contributing to a fatal overdose rate among VA patients that is nearly double the national average.

Prescriptions for four opiates—hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine—have surged by 270 percent in the past 12 years, according to data CIR obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. CIR’s analysis for the first time exposes the full scope of that increase, which far outpaced the growth in VA patients and varied dramatically across the nation.

Waggoner was among the victims of the VA prescription epidemic.

Unemployed and newly divorced, he had joined the Army for a fresh start in 2006. After a rocket-propelled grenade blast in Afghanistan sent shockwaves through his 6-foot frame, though, he got hooked on government-issued painkillers; mentally, he never recovered.

Waggoner told a nurse at the Roseburg VA hospital that he suffered from severe flashbacks that made him cry out in the middle of the night, strangling his pillow, hitting the wall. He sleepwalked, sometimes jolting awake in his closet, still battling the Taliban in the Korengal Valley of his mind.

The VA responded with a battery of drugs so generous that in the weeks leading up to Waggoner’s overdose, his medical records show, he woke only to take his medicine.

“When not stimulated, (he) lies on the gurney and rapidly falls asleep,” Dr. Donald J. Venes noted 10 days before Waggoner’s release. Nurse Larry Reeves wrote that Waggoner’s “eyes were just slits and he appeared to be overly sedated.” He was rushed to the emergency room after falling out of bed.

In the last three hours of his life, Waggoner checked into a motel near the hospital and drank two bottles of beer. He took eight oxycodone tablets, together with a fistful of tranquilizers and muscle relaxants—all courtesy of the VA.

When he fell asleep at the counter of a nearby Applebee’s while having nachos and another beer, the restaurant manager helped him back to the motel.

There, Waggoner stumbled down the hallway, fumbled with his room key and collapsed face down onto the carpeted floor. Surveillance video shows other motel guests stepped over him for an hour.

By the time paramedics arrived, it was too late.

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