Congress and governors have clamored for action in the face of a rising tide of opioid addiction and deaths, but part of the trouble might come from inside the government itself. The Associated Press reported yesterday that the federal government has launched investigations into the Veterans Administration for widespread theft of opioids. They suspect that doctors, nurses, and other employees have “siphoned off” opioids and helped to fuel the black market:
Federal authorities are stepping up investigations at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers due to a sharp increase in opioid theft, missing prescriptions or unauthorized drug use by VA employees since 2009, according to government data obtained by The Associated Press.
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 simply disappeared.
This problem likely exists elsewhere too, for the same reasons it exists at the VA. Wherever addiction sets in, people will find a way to address it. That applies to addiction to cash, too, which is always an issue when dealing with narcotics. It’s for that reason that pharmacies and hospitals have rigorous security and tracking systems, and are supposed to get audited to ensure that their supplies are adequately protected and administered.
That’s actually the problem at the VA:
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 the 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.
The VA has known about this problem since 2009 and still hasn’t fixed it? That would be astounding, except for … well, everything else we’ve learned about the VA since 2013. Eric Shinseki had four years to fix this problem and apparently didn’t do anything about it. Let’s not forget that the newly confirmed VA Secretary, David Shulkin, has been in a position of responsibility since 2014 and doesn’t appear to have addressed it, either.
Now, consider what would happen at a private-sector clinic or hospital. First off, the DEA would have climbed all over any practitioner, pharmacist, or hospital for not keeping spotless records regarding the security of narcotics. Also, these drugs are not exactly cheap, so having significant amounts of it go missing would eventually prompt questions about costs even without the issue of inspections. The comparison to the government’s own performance when regulating its own operations speaks for itself.