Painkiller Pills Are Disappearing From VA Hospitals

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Regular theft of prescription pills from veterans facilities across the U.S. is sparking another investigation of employees diverting drugs for personal gain.

An investigation by the Associated Press found the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general opened 36 new criminal investigations into medication theft at VA facilities between Oct. 1 and May 19. There are now 108 open cases investigating the disappearance of pills, primarily opioid painkillers, reports Penn Live.

Doctors, nurses and staff at facilities connected with the VA are suspected of obtaining the pills for sale on the black market or for personal use. Many times the thefts result in disruptions to patient care, depriving veterans of medications they direly need.

“Prescription drug diversion is a multifaceted, egregious health care issue,” Jeffrey Hughes, acting VA assistant inspector general for investigations, told the AP. “Veterans may be denied necessary medications or their proper dosage and medical records may contain false information to hide the diversion, further putting veterans’ health at risk.”

Carolyn Clancy, a deputy VA undersecretary for health, testified to the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight Feb. 27 regarding rising rates of opioid theft by employees. Clancy told the committee that the department will increase drug testing of employees in an effort to track workers who may be abusing prescription pills. The department is also in the process of hiring additional inspectors to keep better track of drug inventories.

The VA came under fire in February after a report revealed that theft in their facilities has skyrocketed since 2010. Reported cases of drug theft from federal medical hospitals rose from only 272 in 2009 to 2,926 in 2015.

The issue is keeping key medications away from the veterans who need them. A VA employee in Baltimore infected with Hepatitis C admitted to shooting up with the opiate-based painkiller fentanyl from syringes meant for patients going into surgery. He then refilled the syringes with saline solution, infecting a number of VA patients with the disease.

Poorly conducted inspections of drug supplies in VA facilities are compounding the problem and adding to fears that veterans may not always be receiving the medications they need. In many cases, clinics were found skipping monthly inspections all together. The VA hospital in Washington, D.C., is the worst offender. Investigators said officials failed to conduct monthly inspections of the their drug supplies more than 40 percent of the time at the facility.

Investigators say the sharp increase in theft can partially be attributed to the national opioid epidemic. VA employees with addictions to opioids may steal the pills for personal use, while others are using their access to steal pills in bulk for distribution on the street.

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