Drug Theft Plagues VA Hospitals
The Associated Press recently reported on federal investigations targeting opioid theft from VA medical centers throughout the country, which has been on the rise since 2009. The culprits are believed to be doctors, nurses, and pharmacy staff at the hospitals, who steal the drugs for their own use, to profit through street sales, or mismanage the supply so badly they cannot account for where the drugs went. Spot checks of four VA hospitals found the facilities had skipped monthly inspections of drug stocks and failed to observe other requirements. This limited sample does not predict well for the VA's vast network of more than 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics.
Drug theft has numerous negative consequences: it deprives veterans of much needed medication, strains the financial resources of the VA, and fuels the opioid epidemic, which is proving disastrous nationwide. The AP article recounts numerous horror stories stemming from misappropriation and theft of drugs at VA facilities, including:
- The arrest of three VA employees charged with conspiring to steal prescription medications. A pharmacy technician at the Little Rock, Arkansas, VA hospital allegedly “used his VA access to a medical supplier's web portal to order and divert 4,000 oxycodone pills, 3,300 hydrocodone pills and other drugs at a cost to the VA of $77,700 and a street value of $160,000.”
- A former VA employee’s drug use infected unsuspecting patients. In Baltimore, a man admitted he injected himself with fentanyl intended for surgical patients and then refilled the syringes with saline solution, spreading his Hepatitis C virus to patients who got the tainted solution.
- Patients denied pain-relieving drugs due to short supply. VA pain management specialist Dr. Dale Klein reported that some of his patients suspected they weren't getting the pain medication they needed because the pharmacy had run out. One patient whose leg was amputated went without morphine because a VA pharmacy had none in supply.
Clearly, the national appetite for drugs, especially opioids, has fueled the rising levels of drug theft at institutions throughout the country. At his confirmation hearing earlier this year, VA Secretary David Shulkin said he was proud the VA had identified the serious problem of rising opioid addiction and had begun to take action to address it. However, the VA needs to do much more. The AP article makes it clear — and the VA acknowledges — there have been enormous problems with basic protocols, such as keeping up with monthly inspections. The VA says it is taking steps to improve training and requiring hospitals to comply with inspection procedures. But our veterans deserve more than talk. They deserve results.
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