Drug thefts at VA hospitals are still at epidemic levels

We always knew that the VA scandal was going to take a long time to clean up (assuming that’s even possible) but precisely how long should the public be willing to wait? While wait times have decreased overall (significantly in some cases) and we’re seeing a bit more transparency, other problems remain pervasive. One of these is the issue of drug theft at VA hospitals. The Inspector General’s office has found that in roughly the past six months, a spiraling number of investigations have been opened into cases of prescription drugs, particularly opioids, going “missing” from VA facilities. (Special report exclusively from the Associated Press)

Federal authorities have launched dozens of new criminal investigations into possible opioid and other drug theft by employees at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, a sign the problem isn’t going away despite new prevention efforts.

Data obtained by The Associated Press show 36 cases opened by the VA inspector general’s office from Oct. 1 through May 19. It brings the total number of open criminal investigations to 108 involving missing prescriptions, theft or unauthorized drug use. Most of those probes typically lead to criminal charges.

The numbers are an increase from a similar period in the previous year. The VA has pledged “zero tolerance” in drug thefts following an AP story in February about a sharp rise in reported cases of stolen or missing drugs since 2009.

The following graphic from the AP report breaks down the distribution of such cases by state and as you will see, there’s no seeming pattern to it beyond population density. The larger, busier facilities seem to have the most incidents.

These drugs are obviously either being stolen for personal use or, more commonly, for resale on the streets. And these are medications which were intended for wounded veterans. In an era of hot takes and manufactured outrage, this is something you can be genuinely angry about.

This story has been coming to a head for a while now. In early February, three workers at a VA hospital in Arkansas were charged with stealing Oxycodone, Hyrocodone and Viagra and selling the drugs on the black market. In Baltimore, a worker infected with Hepatitis C confessed to taking syringes of painkillers intended for veterans going into surgery, shooting up the drugs himself and refilling them with saline solution which was then administered to the veteran. This resulted in the patients not only getting the painkillers required for surgery, but in at least one case contracting Hepatitis from the thief.

The rate of theft has actually decreased in the past year, but it still remains more than double the frequency of such drug thefts at private hospitals. And small wonder, considering how low the risk for doing it has been. One report earlier this year found that out of the thousands of incidents of drugs “going missing” at VA facilities, workers were only punished in 3% of the cases. And in the rare cases where they did manage to fire someone, all too often the unions were able to get them their jobs back after appealing to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

I suppose we should be cheering the VA for being more aggressive in pursuing such cases this year and identifying more problematic facilities, but until the thieves can consistently be held accountable and brought to justice (or at least removed from the government payrolls) this problem is going to continue.