Congressman Roe's response to July 3 protest

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Jul 10, 2017 at 9:31 PM

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe issued a response Monday to last week’s protest at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, when a disabled veteran complained about the congressman’s support for changes in VA drug administration policy.

During a July 3 ceremony honoring Mountain Home’s historic buildings, Robert Rose turned his wheelchair to face away from the Republican 1st Congressional District representative to express his opposition to the “Opioid Safety Initiative,” which Rose claims restricts access to pain medications for patients and veterans suffering from chronic pain.

On Monday, Roe, R sent an email to the Johnson City Press saying Rose’s criticisms and protests were unwarranted, though he acknowledged the concerns of veterans like Rose in regard to their medications being taken away and tapered.

“While I support the goals of this initiative and applaud the VA for taking steps to curb dependence on opioids, I also have been made aware of many concerns from veterans like Mr. Rose that necessary pain management may have been reduced or eliminated too quickly and will conduct oversight through my position as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs as to whether the policy needs to be modified,” Roe wrote.

Roe believes the issue is more complicated than what Rose claimed. Roe said the new guidelines for restricting the opioid overuse is a measure that has been implemented to combat the national opioid epidemic.

“The Veterans Health Administration has a long history with opioids that began in the 1990s when, along with the American Pain Society and other pain advocates, they declared pain as the ‘5th vital sign,’ which resulted in widespread opioid use — and ultimately a high rate of addiction — to include among the veterans population,” Roe said in his email to the Press.

The congressman complained in his email that he was not afforded the opportunity to respond to Rose’s criticisms. Roe was not available immediately following Rose’s comments to the Press, and the Press’ efforts to reach Roe and his staff on July 3 were unsuccessful.

The Press again contacted Roe’s office on Monday to request an interview. Lani Short, his press secretary, said the congressman would be unavailable because Roe’s schedule was “especially full.” Short said “everything he would say is found in the letter below,” referring to Roe’s email.

Rose said he has suffered because of the guidelines, which were first officially implemented in 2012 after multiple Senate hearings in which experts in pain treatments, such as practitioner Dr. Alex DeLuca, compared measures similar to the initiative to a “death sentence.”

Roe said he was disheartened to see veterans like Rose suffer but maintained the guidelines that restrict patients’ access to opioids are positive measures, despite the opposition of many veterans like Rose and other doctors who have warned of the dangers of forced tapering of pain medications for people suffering from chronic pain and the disabilities that come with it.

“Our country is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, and East Tennessee is among one of the regions hardest hit by opioid misuse and addiction. There’s no question some of VHA’s own practices — such as an initial refusal to work with state prescribing databases — have exacerbated this serious problem,” Roe said in the email. “No one wants to see a veteran suffer, especially not when their pain could be connected to their service to their country, but veterans with chronic pain deserve the opportunity to live normal lives and to have their pain managed in a responsible way.

“That’s why VHA and the Department of Defense partnered to issue new guidelines, known as the ‘Opioid Safety Initiative,’ for the prescribing of opioids as a tool to help providers ensure they are providing veterans and service members with the best care possible.”

Roe said he was open to dialogue about the initiative that veterans like Rose have been campaigning against, although Rose said he was not allowed to speak to the congressman last week.

Roe said he is doing everything he can to help the region’s veterans.

“Congress is working with the medical community, including providers at VHA, to curb the long-term prescribing of opioids to manage pain within the veteran and general population. In fact, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which I voted for and was signed into law by former President Obama, included a number of provisions to ensure veterans have access to quality care, including pain management programs,” Roe said. “CARA also included grant funding to allow the VA Secretary and the Department of Justice to expand veterans treatment courts and provide additional resources for veterans’ rehabilitation and substance use treatment programs.

“My priority is — and will always be — ensuring veterans have access to the care and services they have earned. I believe we can work together to combat the opioid epidemic, and that we can do so in a way that minimizes disruptions in patient care, but it’s going to require a careful and honest look at where we are and the challenges that lie ahead. I encourage any veteran in the First District to contact any of my offices if they believe I can be of assistance to them or their family. My door is always open,” Roe said in his email to the Press.

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