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Minnesota Experiences Uptick in Prescription Drug Theft

Minnesota health care facilities and their patients are increasingly the victims of prescription drug theft, a new study by a coalition of law enforcement and health officials finds.

Coalition Data Reveals a Growing Theft Problem

The study looked at data collected by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) between 2005 and 2011. In those six years, there were 250 cases of prescription drug theft. In 2005, there were 24 reported thefts and in 2010-the last year of complete data-there were 52 reported thefts. Health care facilities experienced 45 prescription drug thefts in the first 10 months of 2011.

The DEA requires health care facilities to report thefts of prescription drugs within 24 hours. The theft of even one pill of a prescription drug is a felony crime.

The most common targets of prescription drug theft in Minnesota are prescription painkillers like oxycodone, hydromorphone, morphine sulfate and fentanyl. These types of drugs are highly addictive and thus highly desirable in the growing market for illegal prescription drugs.

In one instance in 2011, a nurse at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis was suspected of stealing a patient's painkillers. Surgeons reported her after observing what they described as strange behavior during the surgery. The nurse resigned after refusing to take a drug test. Later, law enforcement discovered she was dependent on painkillers.

Health Care Workers Frequently Tied to Drug Thefts

Nurses and health care workers are often behind these thefts. For these professionals, who are sometimes battling the disease of addiction, the consequences can be very severe. In addition to criminal charges, they risk having their professional licenses revoked. These same health care professionals are often hesitant to get treatment for their dependence, fearing a backlash from their employers.

The Coalition's Recommendations for Preventing Drug Theft

The coalition's report included recommendations for combatting drug theft. Ideas included installing surveillance cameras in areas where prescription drugs are kept, training on the protocol for when someone is suspected of theft, securing prescription pads and increasing patient involvement in the fight against drug theft.

These recommendations may serve as a deterrent, but they fail to address the real problem of addiction gripping health care professionals. The individuals need an avenue for getting the help they need. Addiction to painkillers requires treatment, not incarceration.

Source: www.startribune.com, "Medical Drug Thefts Double," Maura Lerner, 18 April 2012

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