Feds have launched dozens of new criminal investigations into possible opioid and other drug theft by workers at Veterans Affairs hospitals, a sign the problem isn't going away despite new efforts. Data obtained by the AP show 36 cases opened by the VA inspector general's office from Oct. 1 through May 19, bringing the total number of open investigations to 108 involving missing prescriptions, theft, or unauthorized drug use. Most of those lead to criminal charges. The numbers are up from a similar period the previous year. The VA pledged "zero tolerance" following an AP story in February about a sharp rise in stolen or missing drugs since 2009. Doctors, nurses, or pharmacy staff in the VA's network of more than 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics are suspected of siphoning drugs for their own use or street sale—sometimes to the harm of patients—or drugs simply went missing.
Drug thefts are a problem at private hospitals as well, but DEA data show the rate of missing drugs at VA facilities was more than double. In February, the VA announced employee drug tests and added inspections, but investigators say it's unclear if new safeguards are helping. Drug losses jumped from 237 in 2009 to 2,844 in 2015, before dipping to 2,397 last year. In only 3% of those cases have doctors, nurses, or employees been disciplined. Congressional auditors this year found that at least four VA hospitals skipped monthly inspections of drug stocks or missed other requirements, even after warnings about lax oversight dating to 2009. "That would always be part of any investigation we do," says a DEA investigator. "'What are the employees doing, and who's watching them?'" The Senate is to vote June 6 on legislation to give the VA "tools necessary to remove employees who are failing to perform." (Read more Department of Veterans Affairs stories.)