Since 2009, there has been a sharp increase in opioid thefts, missing prescriptions, and unauthorized drug use by employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers and other federal hospitals, according to the Associated Press (AP). Controlled substances were diverted for personal use, sold on the street, or simply disappeared, a problem made worse by poor tracking of drug supplies at some VA hospitals.
AP obtained and examined government data to come up with this conclusion.
Spot checks by Congressional auditors found that four VA hospitals skipped monthly inspections of drug stock or other required tracking procedures. Federal authorities, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the VA’s Office of the Inspector General, have launched investigations.
However, the AP notes that it is not clear if the problem of missing drugs is worse at VA facilities than at other public or private medical centers, since drug theft is a widespread problem.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that drug stockpiles were not being regularly inspected. Monthly checks at the VA's hospital in the District of Columbia were missed there more than 40 percent of the time, mostly in critical patient care areas, such as the OR and ICU.
According to the AP, reported incidents of drug losses or theft at federal hospitals jumped from 272 in 2009 to 2,926 in 2015, but then dropped to 2,457 last year, according to DEA. The VA has a network of more than 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics, but there are also seven correctional hospitals and about 20 hospitals serving Indian tribes that are considered federal hospitals.
Three VA employees at the Little Rock, AR, VA hospital have been charged with conspiring to steal prescription medications including opioids. The inspector general's office told the AP that a pharmacy technician was able to use a medical supplier's web portal to order and divert $77,700 worth of oxycodone pills, hydrocodone pills, and other drugs that had a street value of $160,000.
In another case, a former VA employee in Baltimore pleaded guilty to charges that he used injections of fentanyl intended for surgery patients and refilled the syringes with saline solution that was tainted with hepatitis C.
This diversion not only puts opioids into the community for illegal use, it means that patients did not get the medications they needed.