Huge Increase in Opioid Theft, Missing Prescriptions at VA Hospitals Prompt Federal Investigations

By Paul Gaita 02/27/17

Incidents of drug loss or theft at federal hospitals increased by over 900% from 2009 to 2015.

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A shocking escalation in the number of prescription drugs—including opioids—missing from federal hospitals, as well as inaccurate inventory counts and cases of unauthorized drug use by staff members at these locations (which include Veterans Administration facilities), has spurred multiple investigations by federal authorities who are attempting to determine how such oversights occurred.

Both the U.S. Inspector General's office and the Drug Enforcement Administration are examining reports of missing drugs and drug theft within the VA system, spurred by data obtained by the Associated Press, which showed the number of reported incidents of drug loss or theft at federal hospitals rising from 272 cases in 2009 to more than 2,900 in 2015. 

While federal hospitals encompass VA facilities, correctional hospitals and about 20 hospitals that care for Native American tribes, the cases involving the VA have drawn the most attention from legislators and the public due to the possible impact on ex-service members, as well as the continued fallout from a VA-related scandal in 2014 where more than 1,000 patients may have died as a result of poor management—including incidents where veterans died while waiting for proper care.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, commented on the multitude of alleged problems by stating that, "VA employees who are entrusted with serving our nation's wounded, ill and injured veterans must be held to a higher standard."

The inventory and theft issues were brought to light by a report from the Government Accountability Office, which found that drug inventory at certain VA facilities was often not properly inspected. In the case of one VA hospital in Washington, D.C., monthly checks of drug stockpiles were missed more than 40% of the time, while the facility's pharmacy missed its required inspection three months in a row.

Additionally, the hospital reported five separate incidents in which drugs were somehow lost or went unaccounted for. The GAO report noted that similar situations were found at VA locations in Seattle, Milwaukee, and Memphis, Tennessee.

The fallout from such errors and outright criminal actions has had wide-ranging and often devastating effects on VA patients. In 2013, a cardiac technician was sentenced to 39 years in prison for causing a multi-state outbreak of hepatitis C after he was caught stealing and using syringes containing the painkiller fentanyl on himself and then refilling the used needles with saline for use on hospital patients, including those at a Baltimore, Maryland VA.

Dr. Dale Klein, a VA pain management specialist, reported incidents in which his patients weren't getting the medication they needed, including one individual who was not given morphine after a leg amputation because the hospital reportedly did not have enough of the drug. 

As a result of the AP findings, the heads of two congressional committees have announced or have continued reviews of VA practices. Representative Phil Roe of Tennessee, who leads the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that his panel has slated a hearing for February 27, while Senator Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, stated that a review into the issue was continuing.

"The fact that drugs are going missing from VA facilities further underscores the importance of oversight," said Roe, who is also a physician. "This is a serious issue, and it must be addressed." Veterans affairs groups have also called on the VA to provide more information about the problems.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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