Report: Prescription drugs seem to 'vanish' from VA hospitals across the country

Opioid theft, missing prescriptions or unauthorized drug use by employees have increased at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers since 2009, according to data obtained by the Associated Press.

Federal authorities plan to increase investigations into claims that doctors, nurses and pharmacy staff at these hospitals have siphoned away controlled substances for their own use or for street sales. Drugs intended for patients have seemingly disappeared within the VA system.

According to the Associated Press, congressional auditors found that the hospitals have been lax in tracking drug supplies.

"Drug theft is an area of concern," Jeffrey Hughes, the VA's acting assistant inspector general for investigations, told the AP. He said that sometimes hospitals skip or miss inspections that are supposed to root out crime.

Both the inspector general's office and the Drug Enforcement Administration said they increased scrutiny of reported drug thefts from the VA.

Medical experts and law enforcement officials told the AP that there's a similar drug theft problem at private facilities, too, since opioid abuse is so rampant across the United States.

The VA has received particular scrutiny from lawmakers and the public, since the 2014 wait-time scandal at a VA facility in which some patients died.

"Those VA employees who are entrusted with serving our nation's wounded, ill and injured veterans must be held to a higher standard," Joe Davis, spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the AP.

The VA did not respond to the AP's request for a list of facilities where drugs had been reported missing or disciplinary action was taken.

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Incidents of drug loss or theft at federal hospitals jumped from 272 in 2009 to 2,926 in 2015, before dipping to 2,457 last year, according to DEA data obtained by the AP.

Drug thefts from the VA raise the possibility that patients will be denied the medications they need or that they will be treated by staff members who are impaired by drugs.

A former VA employee in Baltimore pleaded guilty to charges that he injected himself with fentanyl intended for patients who were headed into surgery, then refilled the syringes with saline solution. Patients then received solution tainted with Hepatitis C virus carried by the employee, according to the AP.

Dr. Dale Klein, a VA pain management specialist, said some patients weren't getting the drugs they needed, including someone with an amputated leg who had to do without morphine because the VA pharmacy did not have enough in supply.

Klein, who is part of a whistleblowers network called VA Truth Tellers, described several of VA's inventory lists as inconsistent or a "slapdash rush job."

At the VA hospital in Washington, D.C., monthly checks were missed there more than 40 percent of the time -- specifically in the operating room and intensive care units.

According to the AP, other problems were found in VA hospitals in Seattle, Milwaukee and Memphis, Tennessee.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee planned a hearing on the inspection issue. Its chairman, Rep. Phil Roe, said failing to follow protocol "should not be tolerated within VA."