21 September 2023- The Department of Veterans Affairs announced it has reduced the number of Veterans with opioid prescriptions by 67% since 2012, from 874,897 Veterans in 2012 to 288,820 in 2023 — while continuing to provide comprehensive pain management to Veterans.
VA has adopted a Whole Health approach to Veteran-centered pain care, which focuses on the Veteran as a whole person and provides evidence-based treatment via interdisciplinary pain management teams, rather than relying on one treatment. As outlined in VA’s Stepped Care Model for Pain Management, VA helps Veterans manage their pain by providing foundational services at each facility across the enterprise — including nutrition and weight management, movement and exercise, quality sleep, and relaxation techniques that are delivered through a personalized health plan and supported by whole health coaches.
“More than a third of Veterans who use VA live with chronic pain, so it’s a top priority for us to help them manage that pain safely and effectively,” said VA’s Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal, M.D. “By providing comprehensive pain-management tools, we can often avoid the need for potentially addictive medications or invasive procedures. Our goal is to help Veterans live full, meaningful, pain-free lives — and we will continue to look for new ways to help Veterans do exactly that.”
This progress is largely due to VA’s Opioid Safety Initiative (OSI), which first launched in 2013. VA has achieved this reduction through significant investment in interdisciplinary pain management teams, a sustained focus on increasing access to proven therapies and treatments, and by updating opioid treatment guidelines and implementing best practices.
VA also reduced the number of patients receiving opioids and benzodiazepines together by 90%, from 162,444 in 2012 to 15,981 Veterans in 2023; reduced the number of patients on long-term opioid medications by 71%, from 569,207 in 2012 to 162,261 in 2023; and reduced the number of patients on high doses of opioids by 81%, from 76,444 in 2012 to 14,733 in 2023. The majority of Veterans who do receive opioid prescriptions from VA get them for short-term pain care, such as for surgery or an injury. For patients on long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain conditions, VA uses a patient-centered approach that treats and monitors each Veteran individually according to their needs.
VA has also decreased opioid prescription significantly since 2020, the last time VA publicly reported these numbers. Specifically, VA has reduced the number of Veterans prescribed opioids by 16% since 2020; reduced the number of patients receiving opioids and benzodiazepines together by 26% since 2020; reduced the number of patients on long-term opioids by 27% since 2020; and reduced the number of patients on high doses of opioids by 19% since 2020.
The 2012 and 2020 numbers below have been updated from the previous release due to a change in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking measures:
Tracking Measure 2012 2020 2023 Patients receiving opioids 874,897 345,910 288,820 Patients receiving opioids and benzodiazepines together 162,444 21,828 15,981 Patients on long-term opioids 569,207 219,639 162,261 Patients dispensed greater than or equal to 100 Morphine Equivalent Daily Dose (high dose morphine) 76,444 18,343 14,733
Veteran pain care at VA is broadly divided into five categories, including medication, restorative therapies, interventional procedures, behavioral health approaches, and complimentary and integrative health.