WASHINGTON – the Federal authorities have launched dozens of criminal investigations into possible opioids and other drugs theft by employees at the Department of veterans affairs hospitals, a sign that the problem does not go away, despite new prevention efforts.
Data obtained by The Associated Press show 36 cases opened by the VA inspector general’s office Oct. 1 to May 19. It brings the total number of open criminal investigations to 108 missing rules, theft or unauthorized use of the drug. Most of those probes usually lead to criminal prosecution.
The numbers are an increase compared to the same period in the previous year. The VA has pledged “zero tolerance” in drug thefts after an AP story in February about a sharp increase in the number of reported cases of stolen or missing drugs since 2009. Doctors, nurses, and pharmacy in the VA’s network of more than 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics are suspected of siphoning away controlled substances for personal use or street sale — sometimes to the injury of the patients or the drugs simply missing without explanation.
The Drug of the thefts are a growing problem in private hospitals as the government-run VA facilities as the illegal use of opioids has increased in the United States. But 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 is more than double that of the private sector. DEA researchers cited in part of a larger quantity of drugs kept in stock by the larger VA medical centers for the treatment of a higher volume of patients, both outpatient and inpatient, as well as for the distribution of recipes via e-mail.
In February, the VA announced efforts to combat the drug thefts, including employee drug testing, and added inspections. Top VA officials in Washington, led by VA Secretary David Shulkin undertaken a more active role, holding conference calls with the health plans to develop and assess data flag problems. The department has also said that it would consider more internal audits.
Police said that it is difficult to say whether the new safeguards help.
“Prescription drug abuse is a multi-faceted, blatant health issue,” said Jeffrey Hughes, the deputy VA assistant inspector general for investigation. “Veterans can be denied necessary medications or their proper dosage and medical data can contain false information to hide the distraction, continuing veterans’ health in danger.”
In response, the VA said that he was busy with the development of new policies to improve drug safety and reduce drug, theft, and abuse within the entire health system.”
“We have a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs, theft,” Poonam Alaigh, VA’s acting undersecretary for health, told the AP. “We have security protocols in place and will continue to work hard to improve it.”
AP’s story in February, the figures document the steep rise of the drug thefts from the federal hospitals, most of them VA facilities. Then released the DEA data, more specific details of the problem at the VA. Drug loss or theft has increased from 237 in 2009 to 2,844 in 2015, before dipping to 2,397 last year. In only 3 percent of those cases, doctors, nurses, and pharmacy employees have been disciplined, according to the VA data.
In private hospitals, reported drug loss 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 greater supply of private AMERICAN hospitals, at least 4,369, according to the American Hospital Association. That means that the rate of drug loss or theft is lower than the VA’s.
The VA inspector general’s office said it had opened 25 cases in the first half of the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. That is the task of 21 in the same period in 2016.
The IG’s office said that the number of newly opened criminal probes previously have declined since 2014.
Michael Glavin, an IT specialist at the VA, said he heard numerous complaints from employees of faulty VA technical systems that track drug stocks, which leads to errors and months of delay in identifying when drugs go missing. Prescription drug shipments are not always fully inventoried when they arrive at a VA facility, he said, making it difficult to determine whether a medicine was missing upon arrival or later stolen.
Congressional auditors this year that at least four VA hospitals skipped monthly inspections of drug supplies, or missed other requirements, even after warnings about lax oversight dating back to at least 2009.
“It’s still the same process,” said Glavin, who is the head of the local union at the VA medical center in Columbia, Missouri. The union’s lawyer, Natalie Khawam, says whistleblowers at other VA hospitals have similar complaints.
Criminal investigators have stressed the need for continued drug prevention efforts. The VA points to inventory checks every 72 hours and “double lock and key” to drugs. This features a lot of drug loss cases for reasons other than theft by employees, as drugs are lost during shipment. But the DEA says that some of those instances are incorrectly classified.
“The stocks are always a problem to look or the effort,” said Tom Prevoznik, a DEA deputy director of the pharmaceutical research. “That would always be part of any research that we do, with the question” What are the employees doing, and who’s watching them?'”
The Senate is expected to vote June 6 on the VA accountability legislation would give the agency “the tools necessary to employees who are not to perform on the high-quality level.” A key sponsor of the bipartisan bill, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., be on AP’s findings as ” disturbing.”
“The theft and abuse of prescription drugs, such as opioids, by a number of employees, VA is a good example of why we need greater accountability at the VA,” he said.