Veterans hooked on heroin struggle to find help

KRDO Newschannel 13 (ABC)

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Washington, DC, November 3, 2016 | By Bart Bedsole | comments

A KRDO Newschannel 13 investigation revealed that a large number of heroin addicts in America are veterans.

Not only has the VA health care system struggled to help them, but it may also be responsible for inadvertently creating the addictions in the first place.

Ross Armentor is recovering heroin addict who has been sober for three years this month.

Shortly after serving in Iraq in 2003, he was prescribed the powerful painkiller Percocet, which contains the opioid oxycontin.

He was suffering from a torm hamstring at the time.

Within a few months, he was addicted.

"Two pills became five, five became ten, ten became fifty. And you know the saying is 'one is too many and a million is never enough', and that was definitely my story," he recalled.

Despite a dramatic dosage increase, the VA never questioned his motives.

"I was getting abnormal amounts of painkillers and anti-anxiety medication. It wasn't a big deal. It would come in the mail every month, right to my doorstep. Actually, it was like going and ordering lunch," said Armentor.

But eventually, the painkillers became too ineffective or too expensive, so he turned to heroin.

A top VA pain management expert, Dr. Julie Franklin, recently testified to the House Committee On Veterans Affairs that almost 60% of veterans returning from the Middle East have some form of chronic pain requiring treatment.

A KRDO Newschannel 13 investigation found that 63,880 veterans were treated in 2015 for an opioid use disorder.

In 2013, the VA released its "Opioid Safety Initiative", directing its staff to prescribe less opioids.

However, in the spring of 2016, Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman said there is still a "prescribe-first mentality" among VA medical practitioners.

VA physician Kristine Glass disagrees, claiming that decision is ultimately up to patients like Armentor.

"The patient always has the right to choose it our job as physicians is to educate so they make the right choice," said Glass.

Armentor doesn't question the commitment of doctors and other medical practioners in the VA system.

He says they are simply overwhelmed, and can't provide the same quality care as private facilities, nor can they provide it in the same timely manner.

Armentor tried the VA, but the wait time forced him to seek out treatment at a private facility instead.

"I said 'Hey can you help me, I'm dying here. I'm going to die.' And they (VA) said 'Well, in 21 days we can get you a bed.' Well in 21 days, we die from this disease," he said.

The average wait time for a VA specialty clinic in Colorado Springs as of October 15 was 28 days, significantly longer than most other clinics tracked by the VA.

Dr. Glass believes the treatment is improving.

"We do see things moving forward and change does take time, but we are doing our best to educate from the mandates from Washington DC," she said.

However, Armentor worries the scale of the epidemic is outpacing the VA's lack of bed space and individualized care.

"In my opinion," he said, "when you have socialized medicine, everybody's treated the same. So the doctor doesn't get to know me. He doesn't know my story, nor is he going to ask. I'm a number to him. And so the better individualized treatment I got from an outside source is what ended up saving my life."

He now runs a successful sober house in Denver, using what he learned from his own experience to help others.

More than anything, he wants to the community to understand that heroin addicts are often veterans, professionals, or affluent teens living in the suburbs, not junkees, and he believes a larger conversation is necessary to truly reduce the epidemic.

If you know a veteran struggling with an addiction, the number to reach the Colorado Springs Patient Liaison is 719-227-4074.

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