The number of arrests for drug theft by health care workers increased statewide for the second year in row in 2018.
The number of arrests for “diversion” of prescription drugs by doctors and other health care workers spiked 72 percent in 2017, as the state sought to crack down on the crime in the midst of the opioid epidemic, said Joe Grace, a spokesman for Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
The numbers continued to climb in 2018, Grace said Friday.
In 2018, there was a 27 percent increase in new investigations compared to 2017.
“There was also a 50 percent increase in our inspections of pharmacies,” Grace said. “These inspections are designed to ensure controlled substances are secured and proper procedures followed.”
Last year, the Attorney General’s office received 262 diversion complaints from the public and the medical community. Agents initiated 232 new cases and arrested 53 individuals. Due to these investigations, 19 of the defendants surrendered their medical licenses in 2018.
Those cases included:
• The arrests of 10 people engaged in a fraudulent prescription ring. The ringleader paid cash to the co-defendants for filling fraudulent prescriptions at pharmacies in 17 Pennsylvania counties. The forged signatures of six doctors appeared on the fraudulent prescriptions for opioid pain and other medications. The Commonwealth’s Prescription Drug Monitoring database greatly aided in uncovering the full extent of the prescription ring’s activities, Grace said.
• The arrests of two Westmoreland County health care workers, a registered nurse and a medical assistant, for passing more than 200 fraudulent prescriptions for more than 12,000 opioid pain and other medications. They were charged with insurance fraud for using their prescription medical insurance in this scheme – which included forging a doctor’s signature, Grace said.
• The arrest of a Butler County defendant for passing more than 51 fraudulent prescriptions for more than 2,500 opioid pain and other medications.
In 2018, Shapiro directed that the office look to target bigger diversion cases, in part by working more closely with other law enforcement agencies.
The DA’s offices in Bucks, Montgomery, Lehigh and Berks counties joined a task force to investigate major diversion cases, Grace said. The district attorneys in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties have begun jointly working with the attorney general in a similar collaboration in that part of the state, he said.
While the attorney general’s office is cracking down on diversion-type drug thefts, it’s hard to know the full extent of the problem.
Health care facilities are required to notify the state Department of Health when they realize there’s been a drug theft, but the information they provide to the state is limited, said Nate Wardle, a spokesman for the Health Department.
The Department of Health was notified 256 times over the last two years that there’d been drug thefts at health care facilities, Wardle said. That included 109 reports last year and 147 in 2017.
The state only gets notice that a theft has taken place. The Health Department isn’t provided data regarding what kinds of drugs were taken or how much was taken, he said.
When questioned about the limited information available from the Department of Health, Wardle said that the attorney general’s office probably had better data on exactly what types of drugs are being taken in what quantity.
While health care facilities may not have to provide much information to the Department of Health, the state took steps last year to make it easier for health care professionals to share suspicions about possible drug thefts directly with law enforcement.
Under the new program, health care workers can use the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to alert the attorney general’s office if they suspect that drug diversion is taking place, Grace said.
Protenus, a Baltimore-based, health care analytics website, has been tracking news reports of drug thefts from health facilities nationally.
On Tuesday, the company reported that they’d documented 179 diversion attempts that attracted news coverage in the first half of 2018.
These incidents resulted in 18.7 million pills lost as a direct result of healthcare worker misuse and theft, worth $164 million.
“Given that only a fraction of all diversion incidents are detected or reported in the news, this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Protenus noted in its report.Healthcare Diversion New Drug Trends Pharmacy Crime Rx Fraud