Suspected opioid drug thefts persist at VA centers

Suspected drug thefts persist at VA centers | WISH-TV  – Hope Yen, AP – May 2017

Federal authorities are investigating dozens of new cases of possible opioid and other drug theft by employees at Veterans Affairs hospitals, a sign the problem isn’t going away as more prescriptions disappear.

Data obtained by The Associated Press show 36 criminal investigations opened by the VA inspector general’s office from Oct. 1 through May 19. It brings the total number of open criminal cases to 108 involving theft or unauthorized drug use

The numbers are an increase from a similar period in the previous year.  

The VA has pledged “zero tolerance” in drug thefts following an AP story in February about a sharp rise in reported cases of stolen or missing drugs at the VA since 2009. Doctors, nurses or pharmacy staff in the VA’s network of more than 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics are suspected of siphoning away controlled substances for their own use or street sale — sometimes to the harm of patients — or drugs simply vanished without explanation

separate data from the Drug Enforcement Administration obtained by the AP under the Freedom of Information Act show the rate of reported missing drugs at VA health facilities was more than double that of the private sector.

DEA investigators cited in part a larger quantity of drugs kept in stock at the bigger VA medical centers to treat a higher volume of patients, both outpatient and inpatient, and for distribution of prescriptions by mail.

In February, the VA announced efforts to combat drug thefts, including employee drug tests and added inspections

Criminal investigators said it was hard to say whether new safeguards are helping

Responding, the VA said it was working to develop additional policies “to improve drug safety and reduce drug theft and diversion across the entire healthcare system.”

AP’s story in February had figures documenting the sharp rise in drug thefts at federal hospitals, most of them VA facilities. Subsequently released DEA data provide more specific details of the problem at the VA.

Drug losses or theft increased from 237 in 2009 to 2,844 in 2015, before dipping to 2,397 last year. In only about 3 percent of those cases have doctors, nurses or pharmacy employees been disciplined, according to VA data.

#Yet, if it were pain patients missing a few pills, they are severely punished by losing all access to pain control

At private hospitals, reported drug losses or theft also rose — from 2,023 in 2009 to 3,185 in 2015, before falling slightly to 3,154 last year. There is a bigger pool of private U.S. hospitals, at least 4,369, according to the American Hospital Association. That means the rate of drug loss or theft is lower than VA’s.

Criminal investigators stressed the need for a continuing drug prevention effort. The VA points to inventory checks every 72 hours and “double lock and key access” to drugs.

It attributes many drug loss cases to reasons other than employee theft, such as drugs lost in transit.

Lost in transit? This is “different” than diversion?

If a pain patient said this to their doctor, they would immediately be fired from the practice.

Why are thefts of large volumes from the distribution network, like a hospital, less severely punished than a patient missing a few pills?

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