Air Force Times
By Andrew Tilghman and Brendan McGarry
June 6, 2010
Prescription drug cocktails have lead to at least 32 accidental overdoses among Marines and soldiers since 2007, bringing military medical practices for treating physical and psychiatric problems under scrutiny.
At least 30 soldiers and two Marines overdosed while under the care of Army Warrior Transition Units or the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment, created three years ago to tightly focus care and attention on troops suffering from injuries as a result of combat.
Most of the troops had been prescribed “drug cocktails,” combinations of drugs including painkillers, sleeping pills, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, interviews and records show. In all cases, suicide was ruled out.
Army officials say the deaths are often complicated by troops mixing medications with alcohol, taking their own medications incorrectly or without a prescription.
It is unclear how many troops across the entire military have died from drug toxicity. Pentagon officials have not provided information about accidental drug deaths across the military despite a Military Times Freedom of Information Act request submitted nearly two months ago. Data on military deaths is compiled by the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and maintained at the Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center.
The Army deaths have shocked that service’s medical community and prompted an internal review. But despite a “safety stand down” in January 2009, the number of fatalities continued to rise last year — to 15 in 2009, up from 11 the year before. Meanwhile the total number of soldiers assigned to the 29 WTUs nationwide dropped from about 12,000 to about 9,000.
The internal review found the biggest risk factor may be putting a soldier on numerous drugs simultaneously, a practice known as polypharmacy. According to an Army analysis from June 2009, about 9 percent of WTU patients — 800 soldiers — were prescribed a combination of drugs that included pain, psychiatric and sleep medications.
As a result, the Army medical community has begun to question the widespread practice of polypharmacy and has quietly overhauled the way it prescribes, distributes and monitors the riskiest drugs.
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