The Type 2 Diabetes Epidemic Among Veterans Is a National Tragedy. Let's Fix It.

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Daily blood checks are vital to keeping blood sugar levels in check.
Daily blood checks are vital to keeping blood sugar levels in check. Some diabetics may check their sugar levels three or four times a day. (Wesley Landrum/U.S. Army)

Bob Kerrey is a former senator and governor of the state of Nebraska as well as an adviser to Virta Health.

The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

In 1969, due to injuries suffered during the Vietnam War, I had my leg amputated at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. When I left the Navy, my care transferred to what was then known as the Veterans Administration (VA). I have been a proud patient ever since, and the VA has continually enhanced -- and at times, even saved -- my life over the past 50-plus years.

That being said, the VA is now facing a health care crisis among veterans that cannot be ignored.

Walk into any VA medical facility, and the waiting room is full of rows of veterans in wheelchairs and walkers, a necessity for the far too many patients with amputated limbs. If you think the reason seems obvious -- a side effect of combat injuries and improvised explosive devices -- think again.

Type 2 diabetes is the leading cause of amputations among America's veterans, with more than 15,000 receiving lower limb amputations annually. That's more amputations each year than from all U.S. wars combined.

Amid National Diabetes Month, it is important to note that disease looms as one of the biggest health crises facing the veteran population. A whopping 25% of veterans suffer from diabetes, a rate nearly double the general public. Diabetes is also the most common reason for admission to a VA hospital and the leading cause of blindness and end-stage renal disease for VA patients.

As a veteran with limb loss (albeit not from diabetes), this issue is extremely personal. Before starting a career in politics, I served as a Navy SEAL in the Vietnam War and received a Medal of Honor for my service. Yet, I'm troubled each time I see how many of my fellow veterans are suffering, especially given the highly treatable, even preventable, nature of diabetes and its complications.

Thankfully, the VA continues to lead the charge in tech-forward health care solutions. Programs like StrongMind VR help veterans recover from PTSD through virtual reality, and Tempus provides AI-driven genetic testing and precision medicine to those with cancer. During the pandemic, the VA allocated internet hotspots and devices to help support telehealth access.

To address the diabetes epidemic, the VA recently doubled down on an innovation to help veterans achieve previously unheard-of outcomes, including diabetes reversal, that fall in stark contrast to more traditional approaches.

For decades, diabetes "management" solutions focused on adherence to glucose-lowering drug regimens, while the advice to "eat less and exercise more" reigned supreme. Now, there is an established body of peer-reviewed research and real-world evidence supporting the use of protocols that deliver effective diabetes reversal and even remission.

Just last year, an international cohort of top diabetes organizations published a joint consensus report officially defining diabetes reversal and long-term remission, reflecting the shift toward reversal as a preferred outcome (and, in my opinion, an optimal one) for diabetes treatment.

Thanks to new advancements in technology that enables consistent monitoring and support, straightforward lifestyle interventions are making reversal possible and sustainable across the country, for people from all walks of life.

Virta Health (where I serve as an adviser) is one example. Virta offers a protocol that combines a dedicated clinical team with technology to help patients adopt and adhere to personalized nutrition plans that safely and sustainably lower blood sugar. This approach eliminates or reduces the need for diabetes medications, including insulin, while delivering clinically significant weight loss and improving a range of other important cardiometabolic biomarkers.

How do we know it works? For the past three and a half years, the VA has partnered with Virta through a pilot program, which has provided veterans in nearly all 50 states with this cutting-edge remote care and facilitated transformative health outcomes.

Earlier this year, two-year results presented at the American Diabetes Association's 82nd Scientific Sessions showed that one in six veterans either reversed their diabetes or put the disease into drug-free remission, while the number of veterans with uncontrolled diabetes fell by 40%. Across all diabetes drugs, prescriptions were reduced by one-third. While there is always more work to be done, I'm proud to see the VA lead the way among federal agencies.

Each day we wait, as many as 40 veterans could lose a limb. That is unacceptable. The VA must continue to guide our nation on how to effectively address the overwhelming financial and human costs resulting from the Type 2 diabetes epidemic. Broadening access to diabetes reversal is an excellent place to start. The health of our veterans depends on it.

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