VA to step up drug tests to stop opi­oid thefts

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - HOPE YEN

WASH­ING­TON — The Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs said Mon­day that it would boost employee drug test­ing and in­spec­tions amid ris­ing cases of opi­oid theft and miss­ing pre­scrip­tions, ac­knowl­edg­ing gaps that had al­lowed thou­sands of doc­tors, nurses and other staff mem­bers to go unchecked for signs of il­licit drug use.

Tes­ti­fy­ing at a House hear­ing, Carolyn Clancy, a deputy VA un­der­sec­re­tary for health, said the depart­ment was mov­ing ag­gres­sively to stem VA drug crimes. She said the VA was adding in­spec­tors to help check drug in­ven­to­ries across a network of 160 med­i­cal cen­ters and 1,000 clin­ics. Com­puter sys­tems also were be­ing fine­tuned to en­sure that all em­ploy­ees sub­ject to drug test­ing were flagged for mon­i­tor­ing.

In the past week, she said, the VA held a con­fer­ence call with hun­dreds of health clin­ics to de­velop ac­tion plans for im­prove­ment. The depart­ment was also con­sid­er­ing more in­ter­nal au­dits to make sure hos­pi­tals are com­ply­ing with VA pol­icy.

“The use of il­le­gal drugs by VA em­ploy­ees is in­con­sis­tent with the spe­cial trust placed in such em­ploy­ees who care for vet­er­ans,” Clancy told the House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs sub­com­mit­tee on over­sight. “We ac­tu­ally need to up our game.”

The panel held a hear­ing Mon­day on the VA’s ef­forts to de­ter drug theft.

The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported last week on gov­ern­ment data show­ing a sharp in­crease since 2009 in opi­oid theft and drugs that had sim­ply dis­ap­peared at the VA, amid ris­ing opi­oid abuse in the U.S.

Re­ported in­ci­dents of drug losses or theft at fed­eral hos­pi­tals jumped from 272 in 2009 to 2,926 in 2015, be­fore dip­ping to 2,457 last year, ac­cord­ing to the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Fed­eral hos­pi­tals” in­clude the VA’s fa­cil­i­ties as well as seven cor­rec­tional hos­pi­tals and roughly 20 hos­pi­tals serv­ing Amer­i­can In­dian tribes.

Out of those cases, only a small frac­tion of VA doc­tors, nurses or phar­macy em­ploy­ees were dis­ci­plined.

About 372 VA em­ploy­ees were dis­missed, sus­pended or rep­ri­manded for a drug or al­co­hol-re­lated is­sue since 2010, ac­cord­ing to VA data ob­tained by AP. In a rough es­ti­mate, VA em­ploy­ees were dis­ci­plined in 3 per­cent of cases.

Adding to the prob­lem is that some VA hos­pi­tals have been lax in track­ing drug sup­plies. Con­gres­sional au­di­tors said spot checks found that four VA hos­pi­tals skipped monthly in­spec­tions of drug stocks or missed other re­quire­ments.

Pressed to es­ti­mate what per­cent­age of VA’s fa­cil­i­ties likely had no­table prob­lems with in­spec­tions, Ran­dall Wil­liamson, health care di­rec­tor at the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, cited be­tween 85 per­cent and 90 per­cent. He re­ferred to “not a great track record” of ac­count­abil­ity at the VA.

Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., chair­man of the House panel, said he was trou­bled by the re­ports, coming af­ter re­peated au­dit warn­ings dat­ing back to at least 2009 of gaps in VA’s mon­i­tor­ing pro­grams.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the news has re­cently been filled with story af­ter story of drug di­ver­sion within VA,” Bergman said. “In case af­ter case, what we see are ex­am­ples of drugs be­ing di­verted for per­sonal use or per­sonal gain, yet there does not seem to be much progress be­ing made by VA.”

“We are in the midst of an opi­oid epi­demic, and it is time for VA to start mak­ing ef­fec­tive changes to avoid putting vet­er­ans and the em­ploy­ees who serve them at risk.”

Rep. Ann Kuster of New Hamp­shire, the panel’s top Demo­crat, said she wor­ried that the VA may not be re­ceiv­ing ad­e­quate re­sources to stem drug theft. She pointed to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s fed­eral hir­ing freeze.

“With­out ad­e­quate sup­port staff in place, VA med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties will strug­gle to com­ply with the pro­ce­dures and pro­grams they must fol­low to en­sure our vet­er­ans re­ceive safe, high qual­ity care,” she said.

VA ac­knowl­edged that it has had spotty com­pli­ance with drug in­spec­tions and employee drug test­ing and said most ef­forts to change were al­ready un­der­way. Among other prob­lems, the VA in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice found that the depart­ment had failed to test 70 per­cent — or 15,800 — of prospec­tive hires for such sen­si­tive po­si­tions as doc­tor, nurse or po­lice of­fi­cer over a 12-month pe­riod.

At the At­lanta med­i­cal cen­ter, manda­tory drug test­ing for new hires did not oc­cur at all for a pe­riod of at least six months be­tween 2014 and 2015.

Clancy said the VA was now com­mit­ted to “100 per­cent test­ing” of new hires in sen­si­tive VA po­si­tions and would fix gaps that had al­lowed nearly 1 in 10 em­ploy­ees sub­ject to ran­dom drug test­ing to avoid be­ing mon­i­tored at all. She also cited strong poli­cies, such as 72- hour in­ven­tory checks and “dou­ble lock and key ac­cess” to drugs, to keep VA drug crime in check.

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