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Hospital Painkiller Shortage

Opioid overcorrection? VA taking away fentanyl from veteran with terminal cancer

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By CHORUS NYLANDER, WEAR

PENSACOLA, Fla. (CIRCA via WEAR) — The opioid epidemic is a major concern across the country and in Northwest Florida.

The national crisis recently caused the Department of Veterans Affairs to update guidelines for health care professionals prescribing pain medication.

And for one veteran, Donald Houghton, the changes have left him nearly bedridden.

"It takes all my energy just to live," Houghton said.

He is a father, grandfather, great-grandfather and Air Force veteran—a lot to live for while suffering from terminal prostate cancer.

"I can't do the things I know I can do,” Houghton said.

For the past 12 years, he said he's relied on fentanyl, an opioid prescribed to him by the VA, to deal with the pain.

"When that pain breaks through, the sciatic pain, I can't explain it to you,” Houghton said.

For the past year, he says the VA has begun tapering him off of the drug as a result of new guidelines in light of the opioid epidemic—a change his son, Everette Houghton, says has been devastating.

"It's destroying him. He's been hospitalized four of the last five months with heart failure, and it's probably tied to his drastic cut into his pain meds,” Everette said.

Everette is a Navy veteran himself.

He says as the opioid doses have been fading away, so has the strong, active man he once knew.

"This is not my father,” he said.

Opioid quiz

Everette says his father had been under a prescription of 200 mg given over a three-day period. The dose has been reduced each month.

The VA guidelines recommend patients currently prescribed more than 90 mg get evaluated for tapering, reducing doses or discontinuing the pain meds.

Houghton’s now on his final month before being rid of opioids altogether. For his family, that is not a good thing.

"I just want him to have some relief for this pain, this shouldn't be happening,” Everette explained.

Dustin O.T. Perry, an opioid specialist at the Lakeview Center Clinic in Pensacola, Florida, says he cannot speak on the Houghton case directly, but that opioid dependence is a growing concern.

"I’ve been to war, I’ve seen a lot of ugly things, but never anything like that—seeing my own father like this."
Everette Houghton

"If you go to the doctor and take the prescribed amount, over time you will become dependent on the substance,” Perry explained.

He said each case is different and requires a medical consultation, but tapering off the drug typically shouldn't lead to major complications.

"If you felt the person was in a safe place, you would want to taper them down comfortably, and I think that would be up to the doctor and patient,” Perry said.

The Houghton family said Donald wasn't given a choice in the matter, with little communication from his doctor.

"I’ve been to war, I’ve seen a lot of ugly things, but never anything like that—seeing my own father like this,” Everette said.

A representative from a VA Hospital out of Mississippi said the agency cannot comment on the Houghton case, but shared the following statement:

"VA is recognized by many as a leader in the pain management field for the responsible use of opioids across the VA health care system. For instance, in January the department became the first hospital system in the country to release its opioid prescribing rates.

"Because some Veterans enrolled in the VA health care system suffer from high rates of chronic pain, VA initiated a multi-faceted approach called the Opioid Safety Initiative (OSI) to reduce the need for the use of opioids among America’s Veterans using VA health care.

"Since its launch, the program has resulted in 308,911 fewer Veteran patients—a 45 percent reduction—receiving opioids from July of 2012 to June of 2018."

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