How Bad Is Drug Theft at VA Hospitals? Feds Pursue Dozens of New Cases
Policy + Politics

How Bad Is Drug Theft at VA Hospitals? Feds Pursue Dozens of New Cases

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Trump administration has vowed to step up efforts to address a nationwide opioid and heroin addiction epidemic – one that claims the lives of more than 33,000 people annually -- by appointing a new commission headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and distributing grants authorized during the Obama administration.

But the president might also take a closer look at the slipshod security operations at Veterans Affairs hospitals and health care centers across the country, where doctors and professional staffers have been pilfering prescription drugs for personal use or sale on the black market.

Related: The Veterans’ Hospital From Hell Operates in the Heart of the Nation’s Capital

Between Oct. 1 and May 19, the VA inspector general’s office opened 36 criminal investigations into alleged drug theft by employees at veterans hospitals, according to a report by the Associated Press. That brings to 108 the number of open criminal investigations involving allegations of prescription drug theft by government employees at these hospitals.

Secretary David Shulkin has received kudos for improvements within the long-troubled VA bureaucracy since taking the reins early this year. He said during an interview on Fox News  on Memorial Day that the VA has made important strides in reducing wait times for patients. And the VA’s suicide hot-line operation has also been improved.

But the rash of prescription drug thefts by doctors, nurses or pharmacy staff throughout the VA’s 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics appears to be a tough nut to crack.

Shulkin and his top aides declared “zero tolerance” of drug thefts at VA facilities after the AP first reported in February on a substantial increase in reported cases of theft or missing drugs since 2009. Yet there seems to be no way for the administrators to stamp out a practice overnight that apparently is endemic to VA hospital operations.

Related: Desperate Vets Finally Get Through to the VA Suicide Hotline

Prescription drug thefts have long been a reality of life in both government-run health care facilities and private hospitals amid the rising demand for illegal drugs and the large illegal profits that can be made. Yet the problem appears to be more prevalent within the VA system than in private hospitals.

According to the AP’s Hope Yen, separate Drug Enforcement Administration data shows that “the rate of reported missing drugs at VA health facilities was more than double that of the private sector” – an alarming trend.

DEA investigators have proffered the explanation that there are simply more drugs being kept in storage at large VA medical centers to treat high volumes of patients than at private hospitals, increasing the opportunity for theft. Some critics cite faulty inventory systems that make it harder to determine when drug thefts occur.

Whatever the explanation, Congress is likely to take a closer look at the problem when it returns from its lengthy Memorial Day recess next week. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) told the AP he was greatly troubled by the latest revelations of widespread drug theft. He said he will press for Senate approval of bipartisan legislation he is co-sponsoring to provide the VA with “the tools needed to dismiss employees engaged in misconduct.”

The federal government takes seriously these drug theft cases although administrative action and criminal prosecution has been uneven. For instance, conviction for stealing drugs from the VA can lead to anything from a slap on the wrist or a few months’ probation to a five-year prison sentence.