As the military substance abuse and mental health programs have struggled to keep up with the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill urged a panel of military medical chiefs to redouble efforts to combat the growing problem of prescription drug abuse in the military. In a morning hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCaskill questioned Lieutenant General (LTG) Eric B. Schoomaker, Surgeon General of the U.S. Army, on the progress of the Confidential Alcohol Treatment Education Program (CATEP), which is designed to reduce the negative stigma that accompanies seeking substance abuse treatment. McCaskill has repeatedly said that a lack of confidentiality discourages men and women in uniform from getting help before it's too late:
"Many times they feel it's going to impact their career so they wait until it's too late and then it really does impact their career. These are men and women that we can't afford to lose in the service of our country," McCaskill said.
Following several reports from a whistleblower about problems with the substance abuse program at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, McCaskill won passage of legislation in the Fiscal Year 2010 National Defense Authorization Act requiring a full review of substance abuse programs in the Department of Defense and the subsequent issuance of a comprehensive plan on prevention and treatment of substance abuse. The legislation also requires the military to seek ways to provide confidentiality to servicemembers seeking treatment. Also thanks to urging by McCaskill, the Army initiated the CATEP pilot program in 2009. Today, LTG Schoomaker praised the effectiveness of CATEP and further stated that several Army bases have requested this program for their soldiers facing similar issues.
"What we find is a much larger group of soldiers are coming forward and getting treatment at an earlier stage before the misconduct is performed," Schoomaker said. "The other encouraging thing is that we are getting a spectrum of older soldiers, NCO's and officers that are coming forward to get help."
At the hearing, McCaskill also raised concerns about the growing problem of OxyContin abuse in the military. Noting that OxyContin exceeds the street value of heroin in some cities, McCaskill further questioned officials on whether they had any plan to tackle this problem, especially since many returning service members are prescribed pain medicine for combat injuries.
"This really has become a drug of choice and a huge problem in this nation," McCaskill said. "I want to make sure that everyone is aware that this is a growth industry in terms of pain meds...And I've got to tell you that if you guys aren't on top of this and you knew the number of people being affected by this drug, I think it would scare you."
McCaskill has been a vocal advocate for better substance abuse and mental health policies and programs for active duty, Guard and Reserve and veterans. She believes that our men and women in uniform, veterans and their families deserve the best care.
Despite other hearings being canceled today, McCaskill was able to attend this hearing because it took place within the first two hours the Senate was in session. According to the rules, when Senate is in session, hearings may not be held after the first two hours of the session, or after 2 p.m., without consent. Generally, consent is given daily without objection, but both yesterday and today, Republican leadership has objected with no clearly explained reason. McCaskill's afternoon hearing for the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight looking at the billion dollars in contracts going towards the training of the Afghan Police Force was unfortunately canceled as a result of these objections.