VA's whole health program for veterans shows drop in opioid use

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 12, 2021

WASHINGTON — Health care professionals for the Department of Veterans Affairs saw a large decrease in opioid use among veterans with chronic pain who participated in a pilot wellness program, a VA doctor told House lawmakers Friday.

“We’re actually quite ecstatically focused on this as a solution,” said Dr. Kameron Matthews, the assistant under secretary for health for clinical services at the Veterans Health Administration.

She was speaking to lawmakers during a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee regarding VA specialty health care.

The Whole Health System of Care approach is not new to the VA. In response to the opioid epidemic in recent years, which in 2019 killed more than 70,600 people, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the implementation of the VA program was accelerated at department health care centers through the Comprehensive Addiction and Recover Act. A pilot program was launched at 18 VA flagship locations across the United States to evaluate the approach and its impact on veterans, according to a report published in February 2020 that looked into its implementation between fiscal years 2017 to 2019.

The approach focuses on helping veterans through their overall well-being, not just their pain, mental health conditions, or addiction to opioids, according to the report. Veterans have access to health services which include massage, yoga, coaching, and personal health planning.

Veterans who used Whole Health services had a threefold reduction in opioid use compared to those who were not using the approach, according to Matthews. The VA also found veterans with eight or more visits to their VA health care facility who used this approach showed a 38% decrease in opioid use compared to just an 11% decrease among veterans who did not use the approach.

“We obviously need to take care of the whole veteran, address their concerns, address their pain. Make sure that they, as well as we as a partner, are looking at their whole being,” Matthews said.

By October 2020, there were more than 200,000 veterans who had at least two visits that involved the Whole Health approach, according to Matthews.

While there are known benefits related to reduction in opioid use, how the approach addresses suicide prevention among veterans is still being reviewed, Matthews said.

All VA facilities have started to focus more on the wellness of veterans and away from a system created for episodic care, according to Matthews.

Twitter: @caitlinmkenney