BOSTON — The theft of more than 18,000 pills, mostly opioids, from Beverly Hospital is spurring calls on Beacon Hill for more state oversight of heavily addictive drugs that are diverted to the street from hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies.
Lisa Tillman, 50, of Salem, Massachusetts, is facing larceny charges for allegedly stealing the drugs — including Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin — from automated dispensing machines at Beverly Hospital, Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester and other locations. Tillman worked overnight as a pharmacy technician, and police say she altered computer records to mark the drugs as outdated.
The theft is the largest of its kind in more than a decade in Massachusetts. A report last week by The Salem News highlighted the lack of state or federal databases for tracking how many prescription drugs are diverted from medical facilities to the street.
Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, called the incident “deeply disturbing” and said it should prompt state health officials to partner with medical institutions “to ensure that these problems do not recur.”
Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, said he was “shocked” to learn about size and scope of the alleged pill theft, and agrees that more oversight is needed to ensure prescription opioids don’t end up on the street.
“That story really caught everyone’s attention, especially when they saw the magnitude of the problem,” he said. “It’s certainly something that needs to be looked at carefully.”
Tucker said it’s not clear yet whether improving tracking of pill thefts will require a legislative fix or if the Department of Public Health should be required to update its policies to keep a better handle on the problem.
“What is clear is that we need to do something about it,” he said. “This incident raised a lot of concerns.”
Dozens of bills aimed at addressing the opioid addiction have been filed for the legislative session that got underway last month, but so far none deal with the tracking of drug diversion.
Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, said members of the House GOP minority have been meeting with Baker administration officials to find out what’s being done and whether a legislative response is needed.
“We’ve been having discussions about what’s available to us to rectify this problem,” Hill said. “We’re hoping to get something into the budget, possibly some kind of a pilot project to follow stolen pills.”
Massachusetts is grappling with a deadly wave of opioid addiction that claimed nearly 2,000 lives last year from overdose. Experts say many opioid addicts started with pain pills.
In 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation limiting initial opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply, creating a new program to dispose of unneeded prescription drugs and requiring physicians and other prescribers to check the state’s prescription monitoring program before prescribing drugs that have relatively high potential for abuse.
Data released by state last week shows number of fatal overdoses involving prescription drugs in Massachusetts has fallen, however, relative to the number blamed the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Opioid prescriptions have declined 28 percent in the past three years, according to the data.
Some states, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have sued drug companies for aggressive marketing and sales practices that have flooded the market with heavily addictive drugs.
But experts say the theft of opioids from hospitals remains a serious problem that state and federal officials don’t fully have a handle on.
Under state law, hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies are required to report diversions to the Department of Public Health’s Drug Control Program, as well as to any licensing authorities overseeing a doctor, nurse or other licensed employee, such as a pharmacist or pharmacy technician.
Federal regulations require pharmacies to report lost medications that are on the list of controlled substances to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which also has a drug diversion program.
But the varying reporting requirements mean that in many states, cases often go unreported, potentially masking the size of the problem. There is also no federal database showing the scope of the issue.
Responding to public records requests made by The Salem News, the state Department of Public Health provided records showing two hospital drug diversion cases of more than 10,000 doses during the past decade: the Beverly Hospital incident, and a case involving two nurses at Massachusetts General Hospital found in 2013 to have taken nearly 16,000 pills. But the state agency found numerous reports of thefts of more than 100 pills.
Nationally, more than 20 million pills a year are illegally diverted from medical institutions to the street, according to a recent report by Protenus, a health care compliance analytics firm.
But the firm acknowledges that the figure is based on news accounts or other publications reporting on incidents, not any official database.
The DEA keeps track of the amounts of controlled prescription drugs ordered from distributors by state, and also collects data from states with prescription drug monitoring programs that track the numbers of pills prescribed in the state. Massachusetts has such a prescription management program.
But the federal agency doesn’t calculate the difference between the two figures, which would give an idea of how many pills end up diverted.
State Rep. Lenny Mirra, a West Newbury Republican, said there needs to be a better system for tracking the theft of opioid medications that are finding their way into the illicit drug trade.
“There’s got to be a way to get the feds, state, hospitals, the drug manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers on the same page,” he said. “This stuff is killing thousands of people.”