Veterans Administration reforms championed by Wisconsin lawmakers are advancing through Congress as part of a narcotics abuse package.
Aimed at curbing an epidemic of heroin and opioid overdose deaths, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, sponsored in the House by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, would expand the availability of naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote, improve prescription drug monitoring programs and shift resources toward addiction treatment for people in the criminal justice system.
Included is language requiring that veterans receiving narcotics be subjected to random drug tests at least once a year, that VA pharmacies make naloxone available to outpatients receiving opioids, and that VA prescribers participate in state drug monitoring programs.
After media reports in 2015 that doctors at the Tomah VA were over-prescribing opioid painkillers, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ron Kind, Democrats who represent the area in Congress, pushed bills that would require the VA to update its guidelines for opioid therapy and pain management, provide additional training for VA prescribers and give lawmakers more direct oversight of the department.
Both bills were named for Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Marine Corps vet who died in 2014 while at the Tomah VA from a toxic combination of prescription medications.
A committee charged with reconciling different versions of the addiction bill inserted language from the Simcakoski bills into a new version released Wednesday. It is expected to come up for a vote on the House floor today. If it passes, it will go on to the Senate.
Among other VA reforms, the bill would create a new office of patient advocacy so that people who are supposed to intervene on behalf of veterans don’t report to the directors of their particular facility.
That’s something Marv Simcakoski thinks could have helped his son.
“They’re going to better be able to serve the veterans now and work just for the vets and not worry about the facility they’re working for,” he said. “I didn’t see that with the patient advocate.”
Simcakoski, whose family helped craft the bill, said he’s optimistic it will make it to the president’s desk this summer thanks to bipartisan support.
The House bill, sponsored by Florida Republican Gus Bilirakis, also drew support from Wisconsin Republicans Reid Ribble and Sensenbrenner. The Senate bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican who spearheaded a 17-month investigation of the Tomah facility and VA management.
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