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Veterans' hospitals place high on list for prescriptions

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Veterans' hospitals in Beckley and Huntington prescribed powerful painkillers at some of the highest rates in the nation from 2001 to 2012, according to a new report.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, a national nonprofit journalism organization, recently released more data in conjunction with an ongoing series on the nation's veterans. It found the fatal overdose rate for VA patients is nearly double the national average.

A national report released Monday found West Virginia leads the country in fatal overdoses, most of which involve prescription drugs.

More than 175,000 veterans live in West Virginia, one of the highest per-capita populations in the country, according to census data.

The Beckley VA Medical Center provided more than 150 prescriptions per 100 patients, the second-highest rate in the country during that period, according to the report. The Huntington VA Medical Center provided 145 prescriptions per 100 patients, the fourth-highest rate.

Any center providing more than 100 prescriptions per 100 patients is above the national average.

In addition to census data, the Center for Investigative Reporting relied on information collected through Freedom of Information Act requests filed with the U.S. Department of Veterans Assistance.

It looked at four types of medications in particular: oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and Methadone.   

The data reflects little change in the number of patients each year but a massive jump in the number of prescriptions for the four medications.

From 2001 to 2012, nearly 165,000 patients were treated at the Beckley VA and more than 250,000 prescriptions were issued, according to the report.

In 2001, 13,865 patients were treated and 4,743 prescriptions were issued. With 60 fewer patients in 2012, there were 27,242 prescriptions.

There were never more than 14,450 patients treated by the Beckley VA during that period. Prescriptions peaked in 2011 at 28,524.

Hydrocone far outpaces prescriptions at the Beckley hospital for any of the other medications included in the report. In 2002, there were about 3,600 prescriptions for 14,450 patients. In 2012, there were 21,672 prescriptions for 13,805 patients.

The Huntington VA treated more patients during the period and doled out almost twice as many prescriptions as the Beckley center, the report says.

The Huntington VA saw 340,167 patients and issued almost 494,500 prescriptions. There were 24,610 patients in 2001 compared with 16,779 prescriptions. There were about 4,000 more patients and a total of 44,558 prescriptions in 2012.

The number of patients peaked in 2006 at 29,543, with prescriptions reaching their highest total - 56,332 - in 2008.

Again, hydrocodone was prescribed the most. In 2001, there were 7,166 prescriptions compared with 24,610 patients. With about 28,500 patients in 2012, there were 32,141 hydrocodone prescriptions.

The report doesn't specify if there is any overlap in patients treated at either hospital from year to year, but it is likely given population totals for the area.

Prescriptions for the four medications nationally have increased by 270 percent since 2001, compared with a 41 percent increase in VA patients during the same time span, according to the report.

Hydrocodone-acetaminophen was the third-most prescribed medication through Medicare in the country in 2010, according to a report from ProPublica, another nonprofit investigative journalism platform.

The report found the medication was the top prescribed drug in 2010 for all West Virginians participating in Medicare Part D, the program's prescription drug plan.

A spokeswoman for the Beckley VA said she could not immediately comment but said she might be able to provide some information in the near future. A spokeswoman for the Huntington VA referred comment to the national VA. No one answered a call placed Monday afternoon to the national office of VA media relations.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Veterans Assistance did not immediately respond to messages.

National VA representatives sent a statement to the Center for Investigative Reporting saying the VA is working to address any issues with prescription drug abuse by veterans.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or Follow him at


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