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Advocates push for expanded veteran health services as addiction struggles continue

As addiction struggles sweep the region, lawmakers consider expanding veteran mental health services statewide in light of controversies surrounding opioid prescription practices.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

A bill expanding outreach and mental health services to veterans and active military statewide was recently introduced in the state Assembly, intending to address pervasive addiction and recovery issues for those who have served.

Last week, Assembly Bill 732 was unanimously approved by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. The bill would require the state Department of Veterans Affairs to administer a pilot program to provide outreach, mental health services, and support to both veterans and active military and National Guard who are struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse disorders.

The statewide program would require roughly $1.25 million to provide services through June of next year.

A previous initiative, the Veterans Outreach and Recovery Program, began in 2014 with $1.2 million in grant money. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health Services created the program in an effort to connect veterans to housing and addiction recovery services before federal funding for the program ran out in 2017.

According to a press release from state Rep. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, VORP was implemented in 49 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, mostly concentrated in northern and central Wisconsin.

Expanding the program statewide under the bill would “ensure that veterans in every corner of the state can find necessary resources they require,” Felzkowski said.

But throughout the state, rural counties have struggled to acquire the resources and staff necessary to provide expansive services.

Washburn County Veterans Service Officer Lisa Powers told Wisconsin Public Radio, homeless veterans in her area may instead be directed to the Minneapolis area, a “catch-basin for health care,” located roughly 130 miles away.

“There is nothing up here,” Powers explained.

“We heard a lot of emotional testimony today that really spoke for itself,” Felzkowski said. “We even heard from a veteran who has experienced what this program has to offer and testified that without it, he would not be alive today.”

As lawmakers consider the merits of expanding services, aspects of the federal veteran care system have been recently called into question.

In October, the federal government reached a $2.3 million settlement with the family of former Marine Jason Simcakoski, who died from a drug overdose in 2014, ending a wrongful death lawsuit against the government.

Simcakoski was 35 when he died on Aug. 30, 2014 at the Short Stay Mental Health Recovery Unit at the Tomah VA Community Living Center.

The settlement agreement states that it “should not be construed as an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agents, servants or employees, and it has specifically denied that they are liable to the plaintiffs.” The agreement explains that it is a “compromise of disputed claims done to avoid the expenses and risks of further litigation.”

A 2015 Inspector General report released after the marine’s death found that opioid painkillers were being over prescribed by doctors at the Tomah Medical Center, earning it the nickname “Candy Land.”

The VA Office of Inspector General also conducted a healthcare inspection in response to a 2015 request from U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., to review the prescribing practices at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee. The office had also received allegations a provider at the center had questionable opioid prescribing practices.

The facility was evaluated on whether or not it complied with specific goals of the Veterans Health Administration Opioid Safety Initiative Update. Those standards included reviewing treatment plans for patients on high doses of opioids and offering complementary and alternative medicine modalities for chronic pain at all facilities.

At the time of the inspection in April 2015, no evidence was found of opioid diversion, criminal, or illegal activities associated with opioid prescriptions at the medical center.

The review, however, did find “that a provider prescribed opioid medications for some patients in a manner that varied from clinical guidelines and other providers at the facility.”

The report issued by the VA Office of Inspector General then outlined recommendations for the facility to correct its practices.

Problems with the federal veterans care system in the state have made it even more important to ramp up health services for veterans, advocates for the state-level bill say.

“I think our commitment to this program is just one example of how much of a priority veterans are in our state. There are so many brave men and women who have put their lives on the line to fight for our freedoms. It’s our job to make sure they land on their feet when they come home. If they fall, we will pick them up,” Felzkowski said.

The Assembly bill and companion bill in the Senate will now move to the full Legislature for a vote.

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