The number of reported drug thefts at Minnesota hospitals and nursing homes has more than doubled since 2005, according to a coalition of law enforcement and health officials created after a series of alarming incidents last year.
Their report, said to be the first of its kind, found 250 cases of prescription drugs that were stolen or reported missing at Minnesota health care facilities from 2005 to 2011.
The trend reflects what experts say is a nationwide surge of prescription-drug abuse -- in many cases by the very people entrusted with caring for patients.
"Up until this point, we really didn't have any good information," said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota's health commissioner. He called the report, released Wednesday by the Controlled Substance Diversion Coalition, a "groundbreaking effort" to shine a light on the problem.
A string of cases made headlines last year, including that of a nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital who allegedly let a patient writhe in pain after she siphoned off his painkillers. In March 2011, St. Cloud Hospital suspended a nurse who allegedly used a contaminated needle to steal medications from IV bags, spreading bacterial infections to 23 patients.
The coalition, which was formed last May in response to those cases, also created a toolkit with "100 best practices" to help facilities reduce the risk of drug theft.
A focus on effectiveness
They include surveillance cameras in "high-risk areas," locking up prescription pads and training staff members to notify authorities if they suspect someone is stealing.
They also encourage patients to speak up if they're in pain, because that could be a red flag that someone is diverting their medication.
While the ideas are not new, Ehlinger said, "these are the things that have been shown to be effective throughout the country."
The Minnesota Hospital Association, a member of the coalition, said on Wednesday that its members welcome the recommendations. It will encourage hospitals to collaborate with law enforcement officials on security measures, along with heightened attention to addiction risks among health professionals, spokeswoman Wendy Burt said.
The coalition was able to track the incidents by combing through the records of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which requires hospitals and other facilities to file a report within 24 hours if a controlled substance is lost or stolen.
They found that the number of reported incidents in Minnesota climbed from 24 in 2005 to 52 in 2010. While the 2011 figures weren't complete, 45 cases were reported in the first 10 months of the year.
Some of the drugs most commonly involved are painkillers such as oxycodone and fentanyl. They can be just as addictive and harmful as cocaine and heroin when abused, the coalition reported.
"In some respects, it's alarming but not totally surprising because we're seeing prescription drug abuse going on in the general community," Ehlinger said.
Prescription drug abuse has become the fastest-growing drug problem in the nation, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
However, officials say it's unclear whether more people are stealing drugs from Minnesota hospitals and nursing homes or whether the facilities are getting better at catching and reporting them.
"I don't know that we would say necessarily that the problem's been getting worse," said Ellen Benavides, an assistant health commissioner who co-chaired the coalition. "There's just been more attention being paid."
From now on, she said, the Health Department will track and publish the number of reported incidents on its website every year.
The coalition was led jointly by officials from the Health Department and Minnesota Hospital Association, and it included representatives of hospitals, nursing homes, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies.
The report can be found online at www.startribune.com/a1229.
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384