The Pentagon’s reforms that it installed to lower opioid use and abuse in its ranks is working two top service health officials told Congress. While the country is in the midst of a drug abuse epidemic across the nation, the use of opioids in the military has gone way down.

Less than 1 percent of active-duty servicemembers are abusing or addicted to opioids and its rate of deadly overdoses is a quarter of the national average, Vice Adm. Raquel C. Bono, director of the Defense Health Agency, told a House panel Wednesday.

This, as military prescriptions for opioids, has fallen 15 percent as alternative forms of treatment are increasingly explored, said Capt. Mike Colston, director of mental health policy and oversight for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. Opioids use by active-duty servicemembers has declined from 3.2 percent to 2.7 percent during the last year, he said.

“This crisis is touching the lives of so many of our fellow citizens and the department is committed to playing its part to help combat the epidemic and ensure our patients receive the finest care we can provide,” Bono told the House Armed Services Committee on military personnel issues. The Defense Department “is making headway, but there is more to be done.”

The majority of long-term opioid patients – 83 percent – are older than 45 years old, most likely to be a retiree or a relative of one and they seek care outside military hospitals and clinics, Bono said.

Reforms yet to be implemented will help address the continuing crisis, she added.

For example, in December, the Defense Department will enter into a new phase of transparency regarding opioid use among its ranks through a joint reporting effort with state Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs, or PDMPs. That will create new, additional safeguards for catching people who might be abusing or are addicted to the drug.

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The use of alternative medications and other programs is worth pursuing and the military continues to lead the way in that regard. There is a long, long way to go but it is a step in the right direction.

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Photo courtesy US Army