WASHINGTON (AP) — The heads of two congressional committees said Tuesday they want the Department of Veterans Affairs to better explain its efforts to stem drug theft and loss in light of rising cases of missing prescriptions and other unauthorized use at VA hospitals.
Rep. Phil Roe, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said his panel had scheduled a hearing for Monday. The Associated Press reported last Monday on government data showing a sharp increase since 2009 in opioid theft and drugs that had simply disappeared at the VA.
He said the panel would call on VA officials to discuss what they were doing to improve internal controls and hold employees accountable.
"The fact that drugs are going missing from VA facilities further underscores the importance of oversight," said Roe, R-Tenn., who is a physician, citing the AP story. "This is a serious issue, and it must be addressed quickly."
Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, also described incidents of rising drug loss and theft as concerning. The Wisconsin Republican last year raised issues of possible unauthorized use at the Milwaukee VA medical center, involving allegations that drugs from the hospital's pharmacy was going to nonveterans. His office said Tuesday that committee review was continuing.
Data obtained by the AP show that doctors, nurses or pharmacy staff at federal hospitals — the vast majority within the VA system — siphoned away controlled substances for their own use or street sales, or drugs intended for patients disappeared.
Aggravating the problem is that some VA hospitals have been lax in tracking drug supplies. Congressional auditors said spot checks found four VA hospitals skipped monthly inspections of drug stocks or missed other requirements. Investigators said that signals problems for VA's entire network of more than 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics, coming after auditor warnings about lax oversight dating back to at least 2009.
Veterans groups urged full accountability.
"Medical practitioners at the VA have a responsibility to provide the best care for the injured and ill veterans in their charge, and these actions are contradictory to the very nature of their professional obligations," said Garry Augustine, a Vietnam-era combat-wounded Army veteran, who is executive director of Disabled American Veterans' Washington headquarters.
The VA acknowledged it has had problems keeping up with monthly inspections. It said it was requiring hospitals to comply with inspection procedures and develop plans for improvement.
In a broadcast interview that aired Tuesday, newly confirmed VA Secretary David Shulkin reiterated his support for VA employees as the "best in health care" but pledged to remove any bad actors. Shulkin served as the department's undersecretary of health while the drug problem was growing.
"When you have one or two or three people that really aren't doing their job, they bring everybody down," he told "Fox and Friends."
The VA said Tuesday it was compiling information requested by the AP more than three weeks ago on cases of drug loss and theft at its hospitals.
Reported incidents of drug losses or theft at federal hospitals jumped from 272 in 2009 to 2,926 in 2015, before dipping to 2,457 last year, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Federal hospitals" include the VA's more than 1,100 facilities as well as seven correctional hospitals and roughly 20 hospitals serving Indian tribes.
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