Comment: Veterans need Congress’ help for better antibiotics

Military veterans, more susceptible to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, need Congress to pass PASTEUR Act.

By Raymond Miller / For The Herald

While the covid-19 pandemic has been the predominant public health concern for the last three years, another impending urgent health crisis affecting our nation’s veterans has received less attention. And it’s had a devastating impact for the men and women like myself who put their lives on the line to protect every person in this country.

That looming threat is antimicrobial resistance, which causes bacteria to be much more dangerous and difficult or impossible to treat with current antibiotics. Antimicrobial resistance has led to the emergence of so-called “super bugs” like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and strains of bacteria that cause deadly respiratory infections, urinary tract infections and other infections in 2.8 million Americans each year.

Bacteria develop this resistance when they overcome the antibiotics designed to kill them, causing the bacteria to proliferate unimpeded. It’s an extremely serious global health threat.

But for veterans like those I served with and support through Vets Place NW, antimicrobial resistance presents an even greater risk. Veterans are more likely than the general U.S. population to have three or more comorbidities, as well as mental health conditions. They’re at a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer, all of which make drug-resistant bacteria a severe threat.

Veterans also typically interact with our nation’s health care system more frequently and have greater numbers of semi-sedentary patients receiving home-based primary care that the general population; all of which increases the likelihood of drug-resistant bacteria infection.

Unfortunately, veterans in Washington state are more vulnerable to these difficult-to-treat illnesses than than veterans elsewhere. Washington’s veteran population tends to be higher risk than other states. In addition, the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System is a regional hub for bone marrow transplants and spinal cord surgery. These procedures require patients to take immunosuppressants prior to surgery to prevent rejection. That means there’s a greater number of Washington veterans who are exceedingly susceptible to drug-resistant bacteria.

To combat this problem and support our veterans requires new treatment options. But there’s a major barrier in our health care system standing in the way.

Developing antibiotics is an expensive, long-term endeavor and our health care market doesn’t currently incentivize their production. That’s because most antibiotics have been around for decades and are available as generics on a pay-per-use model. These low-cost options make treatment accessible but create little funding for new antibiotic research. The high cost of development also means that innovative new treatment options aren’t being developed rapidly enough to compete with evolving bacteria.

Thankfully Congress is examining a potential solution that would make a world of difference for our veterans.

The Pioneering Antimicrobial Subscriptions to End Upsurging Resistance (PASTEUR) Act would bring down the roadblock that makes development of new antibiotics so expensive. It would incentivize drug manufacturers to work on new antibiotics by providing upfront reimbursement, closing the gap created by pay-per-use treatments.

The bill would also fund creation of an antimicrobial advisory committee and the founding of an antibiotic use program to inform health care providers on best practices and drive treatment improvements. These programs could take a look at the unique challenges faced by veterans in regard to drug-resistant infections.

Washington’s veterans have long been supported by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and I urge her to take action on this bill which will be life-saving for our heroes. Congress must pass the PASTEUR Act to support our veterans and ensure their health and wellbeing.

Raymond Miller is a U.S. Air Force and Vietnam veteran. He is the president and founder of Vets Place Northwest-Welcome Home. A resident of Marysville, Miller is a nationally certified veteran service officer and veteran advocate.

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