The Dirty Secret of Drug Diversion

Physical Security

​Illustration by Stuart Briers​​​

The Dirty Secret of Drug Diversion
 

​Controlled substances were going missing at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), and the hospital’s security investigator, William Leon, was determined to get to the bottom of it. So, at 11 p.m. on a Friday, Leon settled in for a night of observation at the Level I trauma center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He kept a trained eye on one registered nurse who was suspected of stealing hydromorphone, an opioid pain medication, for her personal use.

HCMC has cameras set up in the medication room to monitor controlled substances, and Leon watched as the nurse began gathering prescribed medication for a patient in the emergency department. The process, called wasting, requires the healthcare worker to take a fresh vial or syringe full of medication and then dispose of the excess, leaving only the correct dosage—all with a witness present. Leon observed the nurse dispense a syringe of hydromorphone from the medicine cabinet, and, while a fellow nurse was signing off on the withdrawal, she placed the syringe in her pocket and pulled out an identical syringe, which Leon later learned contained saline. The nurse held up the saline syringe and wasted the required amount, tricking her fellow nurse, and left the room.

At this point, Leon knew exactly what was going on, and watched with increasing alarm as the nurse headed to a patient’s room in the orthopedic area of the hospital. “In that area, I knew immediately, this patient could have a broken bone—they were in intense pain and requiring this medication,” Leon says. “I see a lot of doctors standing around and I’m thinking ‘uh oh, this patient is going to get saline.’”

Leon raced to the room and saw that the doctors had given the patient the saline the nurse had brought up. “The patient was still screaming in pain and the doctor was frantically asking the nurse, ‘Are you sure you got the right dosage? Are you sure it was hydromorphone?’ and she was insisting she had,” Leon says. He called the doctor and the nurse into the hall and explained that the patient had just gotten saline and still needed the proper pain medication because the nurse had diverted the hydromorphone in the medication room. The doctor went to properly treat the patient and Leon called the nurse manager and the local sheriff’s detective in to begin an official investigation into the nurse’s actions.

Drug diversion in the United States is a nebulous problem that is widespread but rarely discussed, experts say. Whether in manufacturing plants, retail pharmacies, hospitals, or long-term care facilities, healthcare workers are stealing drugs—typically for their own personal use—and putting themselves, patients, and coworkers at risk. 

“I hate to tell you, but if you have controlled substances and dispense narcotics, you’ve got diversion going on,” says Cherie Mitchell, president of drug diversion software company HelioMetrics. “It’s just a question of whether you know it or not.”

The scope and frequency of drug diversion is almost impossible to grasp, due in large part to how diversion cases are addressed. A facility that identifies a diversion problem might bring in any combination of players, from private investigators and local law enforcement to state accreditation boards or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). There is no overarching agency or organization that records every instance of drug diversion in the United States.

Controlled substance management is dictated by a number of laws, including the U.S. Controlled Substances Act of 1971, which classifies substances based on how they are used and the potential for abuse. It also dictates how the substances are dispensed, and a facility may be fined if it does not comply. 

The closest estimates of drug diversion rates come from people or organizations who dig up the numbers themselves. The Associated Press used government-obtained data in its investigations on drug diversion at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers. Reported incidents of diversion at about 1,200 VA facilities jumped from 272 in 2009 to 2,926 in 2015, the data revealed, and the VA inspector general has opened more than 100 criminal investigations since last October. John Burke, president of the International Health Facility Diversion Association, extrapolated data he obtained from facilities in Ohio to estimate the presence of 37,000 diverters in healthcare facilities across the country each year. 

Mitchell points out that any statistic derived from officially collected data still wouldn’t accurately reflect the extent of drug diversion in the United States. “There’s a lot of people investigators really suspected were diverters but had to be chalked up to sloppy practice due to a lack of concrete evidence, so any statistic is talking about known diverters who are fired for diversion,” she tells Security Management. “Even if you did have a statistic, it would be off because how do you incorporate those so-called sloppy practicers, or diverters who thought they were about to get caught so they quit on you and left? No matter what number you come to, it’s probably bigger in reality.”​

Addiction and Diversion

Although more people are paying attention to drug diversion due to recent high-profile cases and the current opioid epidemic in the United States, experts say they have been dealing with the same problems their entire careers. 

“I can personally tell you that I dealt with the same issues 15 or 20 years ago that the healthcare arena is facing today, specifically in the drug abuse and diversion by their own hospital healthcare employees,” says Charlie Cichon, executive director of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (NADDI) and a member of the ASIS International Pharmaceutical Security Council. “There are different drugs today, of course, than there were 20 years ago.”

Susan Hayes has been a private detective for healthcare facilities for more than a decade and says the opioid epidemic has magnified the drug diversion problem in recent years. “The opioid addiction in America has lit my practice on fire,” she says.

It’s no secret that opioid addiction has reached epidemic levels in the United States. In 2010, hydrocodone prescriptions were filled 131.2 million times at retail pharmacies alone, making it the most commonly prescribed medication, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, those are just the numbers that were legally prescribed—about 75 percent of people who take opioids recreationally get them from a friend or family member. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 52 people in the United States die every day from overdosing on prescription painkillers.

Healthcare workers are not immune to the draw of opioids. In fact, up to 15 percent of healthcare workers are addicted to drugs or alcohol, compared to 8 percent of the general population, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

“Healthcare providers are in very stressful jobs,” Hayes says. “They all have problems. Nurses have emotional attachments to patients that they see die. Even orderlies have very stressful physical jobs, they’re lifting patients. Pharmacists can make mistakes that mean life or death. You have people that are already in very stressful situations, and now you give them access to drugs…. I think the combination is almost deadly.”

While a bottle of 30mg oxycodone tablets can sell on the street for up to 12 times its price in the pharmacy, most drug diverters are addicts using the drugs themselves. Because of this, diversion shouldn’t be considered just a security concern but a patient safety concern, Cichon says. He references several high-profile diversion cases in which the diverters used the same syringe full of medicine on both themselves and their patients, spreading bacterial infections and hepatitis. In one especially egregious case, a traveling medical technician with hepatitis C would inject himself with his patients’ fentanyl and refill the same syringe with saline, ultimately spreading the virus to at least 30 people in two states.

Unfortunately, experts acknowledge that most diverters don’t get caught until they have been diverting for so long they start to get sloppy. “The people who are your real problem are the people who are hiding in the weeds, not doing enough to get caught, and those are the ones you want to find,” Mitchell says. “The people they are finding now are the people that have the needle in their arm or somebody has reported them. You want to try to find them before that.”​

Out of the Loop

Hayes details the path of drugs through a hospital: a pharmacy technician orders the medication from a wholesaler, who will deliver them to the hospital pharmacy. The drugs are sorted and stocked in the pharmacy, where they will remain until they are brought up to the patient floors and stored in various types of locking medicine cabinets. When a patient needs medication, a nurse goes to the medicine cabinet and dispenses the drug for the patient. 

Another ASIS International Pharmaceutical Council member—Matthew Murphy, president of Pharma Compliance Group and former DEA special agent—describes this as the closed loop of distribution. “Once a drug is outside of the closed loop, when it gets dispensed from a pharmacy or administered by a doctor, it’s no longer in the purview of DEA rules and regulations,” he explains. Drugs are most likely to be diverted during those times when they are in transit or exchanging hands, outside of the closed loop.

Wholesalers. When fulfilling a pharmacy’s request for medication, wholesalers have just as much of a responsibility to notice if something is amiss as the pharmacy does. Whether it’s a retail pharmacy or a hospital pharmacy, wholesalers are responsible for cutting them off if they start to request unusually high amounts of opioids. 

In 2013, retail pharmacy chain Walgreens was charged $80 million—the largest fine in the history of the U.S. Controlled Substances Act—after committing record-keeping and dispensing violations that allowed millions of doses of controlled substances to enter the black market. Cardinal Health, Walgreens’ supplier, was charged $34 million for failing to report suspicious sales of painkillers. One pharmacy in Florida went from ordering 95,800 pills in 2009 to 2.2 million pills in 2011, according to the DEA. 

Hayes says the fine against the wholesaler was a wake-up call, and now suppliers use algorithms to identify unusual spikes in orders of opiates. Wholesalers can even stop the flow of medication to pharmacies if they believe diversion is occurring—which can be disastrous to a trauma center, Hayes notes.

Pharmacies. To restock the shelves, pharmacy technicians compile lists of what medications they are low on to send to the wholesalers at the end of each day. Hayes notes that many pharmacies do not conduct a retroactive analysis on what is being purchased—which is why wholesalers must pay attention to any unusual changes in orders. She stresses the importance of constantly mixing up the personnel who order and stock medications. 

“If you’re both ordering and putting away drugs, that’s a bad thing because you can order six bottles when you only need five and keep one for yourself,” Hayes notes. 

Similarly, it is important to rotate who delivers the drugs to the patient floors. “John the technician has been taking the drugs up to the floors for the last 20 years,” Hayes says. “Well gee, did you ever notice that John drives a Mercedes and has two boats and a house on Long Island? He makes $40,000 a year, did you ever do any investigation into why?”

On the floor. Experts agree that the most egregious diversion occurs during the wasting and dispensing process in scenarios similar to the incident Leon witnessed at HCMC. Mitchell explains that all hospitals have different wasting procedures—some require nurses to waste the medication immediately, before they even leave the medication rooms, while others may have a 20-minute window. Other hospitals may prohibit nurses from carrying medication in their pockets to prevent theft or switching. ​

Investigations

Any company involved with controlled substances, whether manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing, must be registered with the DEA and must adhere to certain rules and regulations—which aren’t always easy to follow.

Murphy, who worked for the DEA for 25 years, now helps companies follow mandates he calls “vague and difficult to interpret.” For example, DEA requires anyone carrying controlled substances to report “the theft or significant loss of any controlled substance within one business day of discovery.”

“This hospital had 13 vials of morphine that ‘went missing’ and someone called me in to find out why,” Hayes says. “They asked me, ‘Are 13 vials substantial or not? Do I really need to fill out the form?’ I counsel them on what’s substantial because the language is very loose.”

Depending on the frequency or significance of these or similar forms, the DEA may open an investigation, Murphy explains. “DEA will look at these recordkeeping forms and determine if in fact everything has been filled out correctly, that they have been keeping good records,” he says. “If DEA determines that they are lax or have not been adhering to requirements, there could be anything from a fine to a letter of admonition requiring corrective actions.” In more serious cases, DEA could revoke the registration because the activity or behavior was so egregious that it was determined that the facility is not responsible enough, Murphy explains. If a facility loses its DEA registration, it cannot dispense controlled substances.

However, DEA does not get involved in every suspected case of diversion. “There are only so many DEA diversion investigators, so they have to prioritize what they get involved with,” Murphy says. “It has to be pretty egregious for them to get involved to seek a revocation or fine.”

That’s where people like Hayes come in. “They want me to come in instead of DEA or law enforcement,” she explains. “I’m a private citizen, I understand law enforcement procedures, and I can help them get at the root of the problem before they call in law enforcement.” 

After an investigation into a diverter is opened, it is unclear what happens to the offender. Hayes says that she typically gathers evidence and gets a confession from diverters, at which point her client calls in law enforcement to arrest them. Leon, who was in charge of diversion in­vest­igations at HCMC for 20 years before becoming a consultant for HelioMetrics, was able to investigate but not interview suspected diverters. He tells Security Management that he would call in a sheriff’s detective to interview the suspect.

Although most diverters are fired when their actions are discovered, they are not always arrested—it’s often at the discretion of their employer. Depending on the diverter’s role, state accreditation boards—such as those that license nurses and pharmacists—would be notified and could potentially conduct their own investigations. 

Cichon cautions that some hospitals hoping to avoid bad press and DEA scrutiny may look for loopholes. “We found out through the course of investigations that if someone resigns and was not sanctioned it may not be a reportable action,” he says. “If we allow this person to resign rather than take action against him, then we don’t have to report it.”

Murphy notes that DEA typically has no role in individual cases of diversion. “If the diverter has a license from one of those state agencies, usually it’s required that they be reported, and then it’s up to the board how they proceed with the personal license of the individual,” he says. The DEA doesn’t regulate the personnel—that’s up to the state and the facility. 

Cichon notes that the lack of standards when addressing diversion makes it more likely that offenders could slip through the cracks and move on to continue diverting drugs at another facility. “Unfortunately, there are different laws and statutes in every state that set up some sort of reporting requirements,” he says. “There are medical boards, nursing boards, pharmacy boards, and not every worker even falls under some sort of licensing board for that state.” ​

Staying Ahead

Due to the stigma of discovering diverters on staff, many hospitals just aren’t preparing themselves to address the problem proactively, Cichon explains.

“This is something that is probably happening but we’re not finding it,” he says. “The statistics I’ve seen at hospitals that are being proactive and looking at this are finding at least one person a month who is diverting drugs in their facility. If a 300-bed hospital is finding one person a month, and Hospital B has the same amount of staff and beds and is finding nothing…”

NADDI has been providing training for hospitals to develop antidiversion policies. Cichon notes that many hospitals throughout the country have no plan in place to actively look for diverters. “As big as the issue is, many of them are still just not being that proactive in looking at the possibility that this is happening in their facility.”

Cichon encourages a team approach to diversion that acknowledges diversion as a real threat. “Not just security personnel should be involved with the diversion aspect,” he says. “Human resources, pharmacy personnel, security, everyone is being brought into this investigation, because the bigger picture is patient safety. The diverting healthcare worker typically isn’t one who’s going to be selling or diverting his or her drugs on the street, but they are abusing the drugs while they are working.”

Leon worked hard on diversion prevention at HCMC after discovering a surprising pattern: almost all of the diverters he investigated wanted to be caught. “What got me on this path of prevention was observing the nurses as they would admit to what they did,” he explains. “More often than not the nurses would say, ‘I wanted somebody to stop me. I needed help, didn’t know how to ask for it, and I was hoping somebody would stop me.’ That’s pretty powerful when you’re sitting there listening to this on a consistent basis.”

Leon implemented mandatory annual training for everyone in the hospital—from food service workers to surgeons—to recognize the warning signs of drug diversion. “If a nurse or anesthesiologist or physician is speaking with you and telling you they are having these issues, then you should say something,” Leon explains. “It’s not doing the wrong thing—you’re helping them, and that’s the message we sent out. Look, these individuals are not bad individuals. Something happened in their lives that led them down this path.”

Leon also had cameras installed throughout the hospital that allowed him to observe diversion but also kept his investigations accurate. “We had a nurse who was highly suspected of diverting,” he says. “With the cameras I was able to show that she wasn’t diverting, just being sloppy. The employees appreciated the cameras because it showed they weren’t diverting medication, they just made a mistake.”

Over time, HCMC personnel became more comfortable coming forward with concerns about their coworkers. Before the facility started the annual training, Leon caught at least one diverter a month. Before he retired, he says, that number had dropped to one or two a year.

“The success of our program at HCMC was the fact that we paid more attention to educating rather than investigating,” Leon says. “You have to keep those investigative skills up, but you have to spend equal amount of time on prevention and awareness.”

Mitchell points to algorithmic software that can identify a potential diverter long before their peers could. Taking data such as medicine cabinet access, shift hours, time to waste, and departmental access allows software to identify anomalies, such as a nurse whose time to waste is often high, or a doctor who accesses patients’ files after they have been discharged. 

“Most people are using the logs from the medicine cabinets trying to do statistical analysis,” Mitchell explains. “You find out 60 days or six months later, or you don’t see that pattern emerge by just using one or two data sets. That doesn’t help. The goal is to identify these people as quickly as possible so they are no longer a risk to themselves or the patients or anyone they work with.”

Murphy encourages facilities to be in full DEA compliance to mitigate diversion. “If somebody wants to steal or becomes addicted, they are going to find a way to do it, and sooner or later they are going to get caught, but then there’s a problem because the hospital has to work backwards to determine how much was stolen and reconcile all that,” he says. He also notes the importance of following up internally on each diversion case and figuring out what went wrong, and adjusting procedures to address any lapses. 

“Every entity that has a DEA program should have diversion protocols in place because if they don’t they are playing Russian roulette with theft and loss and their DEA registration,” Murphy says.  ​