Government data obtained by The Associated Press show that incidents of drug loss or theft at federal hospitals have jumped nearly tenfold since 2009 to 2,457 last year, spurred by widespread opioid abuse in the U.S. Federal authorities report that doctors, nurses or pharmacy staff — mostly in the Department of Veterans Affairs health system — had siphoned away controlled substances, while in other cases, drugs intended for patients simply disappeared.
Some notable cases involving alleged VA drug theft:
Three VA employees in Little Rock were charged this month with conspiring to steal prescription medications, including opioids, from the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital. A 2016 investigation by the VA inspector general's office alleges that a pharmacy technician 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, costing the VA $77,700. The VA employees were also charged with conspiring to distribute those drugs, which had a street value of more than $160,000.
An associate chief of pharmacy at the VA medical center in Salt Lake City recently pleaded guilty to acquiring possession of a controlled substance by fraud, according to the inspector general's office. The VA employee was accused of diverting about 25,000 pills, including oxycodone, hydromorphone, Adderall, buprenorphine, Ritalin, and tramadol from the inpatient pharmacy from October 2011 to March 2015. A spokeswoman for the VA facility, Jill Atwood, said the hospital has since added new software, training and made procedural changes to ensure that similar thefts don't happen again.
A former hospice nurse at the VA medical center in Albany was sentenced last year to more than six years in prison after admitting to stealing pain medication intended for patients. An investigation alleges the VA nurse stole the painkiller oxycodone hydrochloride from syringes to feed his drug addiction and replaced the contents with Haldol, an anti-psychotic medication. At his sentencing hearing, family members of some of the hospice patients gave statements detailing the pain and suffering the nurse inflicted on dying veteran patients.
A former registered nurse in the intensive care unit of the Providence VA medical center pleaded guilty last year to stealing prescription drugs. Authorities say the nurse admitted that on dozens of occasions over several months in 2015 she used an override feature of an automated medication dispensing system to obtain hundreds of controlled substance pills, such as oxycodone and morphine. The pills weren't prescribed for or provided to patients. The IG's office says the nurse had previously been fired from a private hospital for allegedly diverting controlled substances, but was hired at the VA after making false claims in her application.
A former resident anesthesiologist at the VA medical center in West Los Angeles pleaded guilty in 2015 to theft of public property and possession of a controlled substance while treating a veteran. Authorities say while providing anesthesia care to a veteran in surgery, the doctor passed out in the operating room after taking a sedative and injecting himself with controlled substances including fentanyl. His fully conscious patient lay nearby and said he was initially frightened that the commotion was due to his own medical condition, according to news reports.
Sources: Justice Department and VA inspector general's office