A Senate bill addressing the national prescription opioid abuse and heroin use epidemic has been sent to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, according to a February 17, 2016 report from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2015 (S 524) includes many laudable mandates related to prevention, education, treatment, and recovery, but there is no reference to the impact of this problem on medical professionals and, most importantly, patient safety.
Just last week, FDA announced that a nurse who worked at the hospice ward of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albany, New York pled guilty to tampering with a consumer product and obtaining controlled substances by deception and subterfuge. According to the U.S. Department of Justice press release, Nathan Baum removed oxycodone hydrochloride from at least 25 syringes between April 8, 2014 and May 16, 2014 and replaced it with haloperidol, an anti-psychotic medication. Unfortunately, this kind of case is nothing new to FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations, as evidenced by a review of OCI press releases. But these criminal cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The likelihood that many similar incidents go unreported suggests the scope of this problem and its impact on patient safety are largely unknown.
Consequently, any legislative efforts aimed at reversing the current epidemic of opioid and heroin addiction should also include measures designed to protect patients from the potentially harmful actions of drug addicted medical professionals, like Baum. One potential solution could be to strengthen reporting requirements for health care entities when controlled substance diversion and tampering incidents involving medical professionals occur. Improved reporting of such incidents will ensure that doctors and nurses struggling with powerful addictions get the help they need before, not after, their growing addictions fuel desperate tactics that expose patients to the harmful effects of diluted, contaminated, and ineffective pain medications.