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Military Substance-Abuse Programs Critiqued by Panel

The U.S. military’s approach to treating alcohol and substance abuse is outmoded, according to an Institute of Medicine report citing data showing prescription drug misuse is surging and heavy drinking is common.

Roughly 20 percent of active-duty service members reported heavy drinking in 2008, the latest year for which data was available, according to the report released yesterday, while about 47 percent reported binge drinking. In addition, 11 percent of those on active duty misused prescription drugs in 2008 versus just 2 percent in 2002, according to the findings.

The military doesn’t consistently follow its own guidelines for treating substance abuse, often doesn’t always provide up-to-date treatment options, and generally won’t allow long-term use of common drugs that can help treat abuse, according to the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences that advises the government on health-related issues.

At some bases, “there was a tendency to be kind of stuck in a time warp” on treatment and counseling, said Charles O’Brien, an addiction specialist at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who led the panel that wrote the report.

The Department of Defense funded the study, and Cynthia O. Smith, a spokeswoman, said it is in the process of analyzing its findings and recommendations.

“If there are areas in need of improvement, then we will work to improve those areas,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. The health and well-being of our Service members is paramount.”

Among the report’s suggestions is for the armed services to make screening for abuse routine during physical exams and for Tricare, the military’s health insurance plan, to start allowing long-term use of certain medications that treat alcohol and substance abuse.

The findings “constitute a public health crisis,” the panel said in a summary. The panel also said that all branches of the military should create programs where alcohol abuse can be treated confidentially.

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