By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger
Data obtained by the Associated Press (AP) from the Federal government indicates that drug theft from Veterans Affairs and other Federal hospitals have jumped nearly tenfold since 2009, with 2,457 incidents of reported theft in 2016 (Associated Press, 2017). What is unsurprising to those of us living in rural and Appalachian states is that most of the drugs stolen are prescription opioids. So great is the problem that two Congressional representatives – Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN) and Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) – have asked the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) to better explain its efforts to stem drug theft and loss in light of data being made public (Yen, 2017).
Opioid drugs have always been highly addictive substances, with reports of physicians and others who have easy access to them becoming addicted stretching back well into the 19th Century. That access has, over the past twenty years, become far greater in no small part due to the popularization of OxyContin and its maker, Purdue Pharma. The Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company has repeatedly faced accusations that its products and its push to make prescription opioid drugs the first choice to treat virtually any type of pain, regardless of severity, the norm in the United States. The company went to great lengths to ease access restrictions to their products and, in 2007, pleaded guilty to purposely misleading the public about the addictive nature of OxyContin, agreeing to pay $600 million in one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in history (Lindsay, 2007). Since that time, states and cities have sued Purdue Pharma, alleging that the company put profits over citizens’ welfare (AP, 2015 & Ryan, 2017).
The recent data obtained by the AP are just another example of how addiction to prescription opioid drugs can lead otherwise upstanding and respectable members of society – those in whose hands we, as citizens, place our very lives and wellbeing – to commit felony theft in order to either satisfy their addictions or to make money off of selling these drugs to other addicts. Other relatively recent examples of opioid theft and addiction in hospitals have led to highly publicized (and costly) outbreaks of Hepatitis C in patients who were not habitual drug users, but patients under hospital care, and yet, despite the clear need to make substantive changes to our nation’s prescription opioid policies, there seems little political will to do so.
Pain advocacy groups (sometimes funded by drug manufacturers) and pharmaceutical companies have repeatedly put undue pressure on state and Federal lawmakers whenever the specter of restrictions or regulations that might restrict or reduce access to prescription opioids makes its way into statehouses. Reports have frequently been made where lawmakers have been approached, bribed, or extorted in order to block or vote against these legislative measures, even if they merely serve as Harm Reduction, rather than outright restrictions. Worse, much of the literature used in prescriber and physician education courses is written by these companies, who go to great lengths to downplay the high risks of addiction by placing the onus not upon the prescribers, physicians, or pharmacists, but upon the patients (i.e. – the patient’s body knows what’s best). The science of opioid drugs, however, contradicts these assertions.
What is frustrating about this issue is that politicians talk a big game about “solving the opioid crisis,” but they appear to be hamstrung as to what to do about the issue. Doctors, nurses, and addiction specialists have frequently presented these lawmakers with detailed, well-reasoned, and affordable plans to combat the crisis, and yet, these legislators seem more concerned about potential threats to their reelection campaigns and coffers than they do about the very real life and death addiction issues facing their constituents. It seems more important to them that Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers continue to support their reelection, than it is important to help save the lives of the people they’re elected to represent.
Theft from veterans is, beyond just a sad commentary on the state of opioid addiction, unconscionable. The men and women in whose debt we all stand for defending our nation’s interests can ill afford for the drugs meant to treat them to go missing, much less for that theft to be perpetrated by those tasked with their care. At some point, lawmakers are going to have to take a stand against pharmaceutical company influence, or simply cede their seat to them, altogether. The time has come for comprehensive reform related to opioid drugs, whether or not that negatively impacts the bottom lines of these companies.
- Associated Press. (2015, December 23). Kentucky settles lawsuit with OxyContin maker for $24 million. New York, NY: Associated Press. Retrieved from: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/kentucky-settles-lawsuit-with-oxycontin-maker-for-24-million/
- Associated Press. (2017, February 21). Cases involving alleged drug theft at VA health facilities. New York, NY: Associated Press. Retrieved from: http://bigstory.ap.org/4a49f7084fdd42f8ac1751e37daee97a
- Lindsay, S. (2007, May 11). OxyContin maker, execs guilty of deceit. New York, NY: Associated Press. Retrieved from: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/economy/2007-05-10-1771944037_x.htm
- Ryan, H. (2017, January 19). City devastated by OxyContin use sues Purdue Pharma, claims drugmaker put profits over citizens’ welfare. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-oxycontin-lawsuit-20170118-story.html
- Yen, H. (2017, February 21). Lawmakers urge VA to explain rising cases of drug theft. New York, NY: Associated Press. Retrieved from: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/f5d8b98e457647718c175f322fa4ad00/ap-exclusive-missing-drugs-problem-va-medical-centers
Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.