September 25, 2015

Manchin, McDonald Talk About Drug Abuse, Health Care Access | Charleston Gazette-Mail

On Friday morning, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald visited Charleston to talk about two major issues facing the country and state’s military veterans — healthcare access and drug addiction, two often-connected problems that strongly affect West Virginia.

Manchin, who in May helped launch a bipartisan caucus in the U.S. Senate to address prescription drug abuse, said Friday that although he believes the U.S. is strong in terms of economic reach and military force, issues like pervasive drug abuse, if not reined in, could ultimately cripple it.

“There is not another country that thinks it can take our military ... there’s not another country that thinks it’s going to take our economic opportunities away. That’s not going to happen. They don’t think they have to,” said Manchin, D-W.Va.. “They do not think they have to — they’re just going to be happy waiting for us to destroy ourselves from within. They do not think we’ll be educated well enough, that we won’t have the skill sets and that we won’t be clean enough to be able to compete on a global basis, as a world leader in the next generation.”

According to Manchin, the problem in both West Virginia and the U.S. is staggering — more than 80 percent of the opioids produced in the world are consumed in the U.S., and 40 people die each day from drug overdoses in America. The problem is perhaps most apparent in West Virginia, which experienced a six-fold increase in drug overdose deaths between 1999 and 2010.

West Virginia saw 34 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 residents from 2011-13, up dramatically from 22 deaths per 100,000 people in 2007-09, according to a report released in June by the nonprofit groups Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate was more than double the national average, according to the report. The state has seen 3,000 drug overdose deaths in the past five years — an average of 600 per year, according to the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health.

“Abuse of prescription drugs costs the country an estimated — this figure is unbelievable — an estimated $53 billion annually,” Manchin said. “I made the decision to stay in the Senate, and it was a tough decision, because I think everyone knows I enjoyed being governor, and I would have liked the opportunity to try to come back and see if the people would have me work with them again and serve. But I thought about where I could do the most good, and this is where I think I can, in Washington.”

McDonald was appointed secretary of the VA in July of 2014 after former secretary Erin Shinseki resigned in the wake of a scandal in which at least 40 United States Armed Forces veterans died while waiting for care at the Phoenix, Arizona Veterans Health Administration facilities. According to McDonald, while many outside analysts blamed the long wait times at the Arizona VA on returning vets from Afghanistan or Iraq, the VA found that the problem stemmed from the aging of Vietnam-era veterans that the country was unprepared for.

“In 1975, when I graduated from West Point, 2 million veterans were over the age of 65,” McDonald said. “In 2017, 9.8 million veterans will be over the age of 65 — a five-fold increase in a very short period of time. We simply weren’t ready for what comes with aging — more issues, more claims, more disability and the need for more medical care. This is going to happen to the American population, so we have to identify these trends and help American medicine get ready for them.”

McDonald said the VA, as the largest integrated health-care system in the country, is a good indicator of health-care system issues that could face the U.S. health care system as a whole. As Baby Boomers age, the strain on the health care system could resemble the 2014 VA crisis — by 2020, 64 million Americans are expected to be enrolled in Medicare.

“The VA really has such an important role to play in American medicine and for the American public,” he said. “We’re the canary in the coal mine ... we see things before the American population, so we have a role to play, to not only help serve vets and take care of vets, but to help ensure that American medicine is moving in the right direction.”

By:  Lydia Nuzum