Legal System Involvement and Opioid-Related Overdose Mortality in U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Patients

Published:September 12, 2021DOI:


      Opioid-related overdose risks are elevated after incarceration. The rates of opioid-related overdose mortality have risen in recent years, including among Veterans Health Administration patients. To inform Veteran overdose prevention, this study evaluates whether opioid-related overdose risks differ for Veterans Health Administration patients with versus those without indicators of legal system involvement.


      This retrospective national cohort study, conducted in 2019–2021, used Veterans Health Administration electronic health records and death certificate data from the Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense Mortality Data Repository to examine opioid-related overdose mortality from January 1, 2013 through December 31, 2017. The cohort included 5,390,902 Veterans with Veterans Health Administration inpatient or outpatient encounters in 2012 who were alive as of January 1, 2013, of whom 32,284 (0.60%) patients had legal system involvement in 2012, indicated by Veterans Justice Programs outpatient encounters. Cox proportional hazards regression models assessed the associations between legal involvement and risk of opioid-related overdose mortality.


      There were 4,670 opioid-related overdose deaths, including 295 (6.31%) among legal-involved Veterans. Veterans with legal involvement had a higher opioid-related overdose mortality rate per 100,000 person-years (191.22, 95% CI=169.40, 213.04 vs 17.76, 95% CI=17.23, 18.29, p<0.001) and an elevated risk of opioid-related overdose mortality (adjusted hazard ratio=1.38, 95% CI=1.22, 1.57, p<0.001) compared with those without.


      Among Veterans receiving Veterans Health Administration care in 2012, documented legal system involvement was associated with an increased risk of opioid-related overdose mortality. Targeting overdose education and naloxone distribution programs and integrating opioid overdose prevention efforts into mental health care may reduce opioid overdose deaths among Veterans with legal involvement.
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