CLEVELAND — Ohio regulators are tracking a significant increase in drug thefts by pharmacists and pharmacy technicians who are battling substance abuse addictions resulting in disciplinary actions including license suspensions and revocations.
While the vast majority of pharmacists and technicians are exemplary—the increase in theft of painkillers and sedatives is underscoring the importance of substance abuse treatment programs as well as the potential risk to abusers and the public.
Our exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation reviewed Ohio Board of Pharmacy records, disciplinary hearings, and criminal court cases over the last 5 years.
We found reported pharmacy thefts increased from 118 cases in 2016 to 320 last year—nearly 3 times as many and prompting the board to take immediate action.
That’s because addiction issues in pharmacies can not only lead to impairment and serious health risks to both pharmacists and techs—it can also lead to prescription errors and deadly mistakes placing the public at risk.
Major pharmacy chains have invested millions of dollars in surveillance cameras to discourage theft and video has been crucial in successfully prosecuting pharmacy theft cases—like this recent video from a pharmacy in Cuyahoga County.
Ohio’s Board of Pharmacy takes swift action
To protect both pharmacists, techs and the public, the pharmacy board has identified at least 67 people who were immediate threats to themselves or to the public and issued in immediate license suspensions in the last two years.
Plus, board records reveal 14 pharmacy techs and trainees had their license revoked.
The pharmacy board says the increase can be partly explained by instituting the first of its kind electronic reporting system in the nation in 2015 that allows pharmacies to quickly and easily report instances of theft to regulators.
Pharmacies are required to report drug thefts to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as well in a separate reporting form that sometimes left Ohio regulators without vital information.
“Prior to this,” said Ohio Pharmacy Board Policy Director Cameron McNamee, "folks were sending theft reports via email, fax, regular mail, phone calls—there wasn’t a standardized way to capture this important data.”
Up until then, the DEA was getting more information than Ohio regulators.
Today, that same information goes directly to pharmacy board investigators.
How much is stolen from pharmacies in diverted drugs?
Protenus is a leading healthcare analytics company assisting pharmacies and other health care organizations track theft.
In its 2020 Drug Diversion Digest, the company estimates at least 148 million doses were diverted nationwide in 2019 losing $183 million.
But analysts suspect the actual figure may be much higher because of many incidents are going undetected.
“So, if you look at the tip of the iceberg,” says Kira Caban, Protenus director of communications, “what we see is that small sliver above the water while the bulk of the incidents are happening clearly lurking undetected.”
Protenus specializes in collecting deep data from health care organizations and employing sophisticated analytics to determine vulnerability to theft and offering solutions to prevent losses.
In another industry report released in 2015, Pharmacists Mutual Insurance Company found while data on "pharmacy theft frequency and severity is limited," it was estimated that 58% of pharmacy theft in chain pharmacies nationwide was caused by employees.
CLICK HERE to read the Pharmacy Crime Report.
J. Patrick Murphy is a nationally recognized consultant who once oversaw security for one of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains.
Murphy, who founded LPT Security Consulting, points to pharmacy understaffing as another reason behind the increase in thefts.
“The smoke as it were, that would normally be there in the normal scope of business, is just not there because there are not enough people in place to monitor the business overall,” Murphy said.
In addition, drug diversion investigators say it is difficult to track just how much is being diverted and stolen nationwide because every state has different reporting requirements for theft.
Charlie Cichon is the executive director of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators that provides training and resources to law enforcement agencies nationwide.
“There are many, many times," says Cichon, "that cases are not reported where the health care provider is just let go or allowed to resign after an investigation into a facility."
Jail and treatment programs
Ohio regulators also believe the opioid crisis that hit Ohio particularly hard is contributing to the increase in addiction and theft among pharmacists and technicians.
Consequently, both regulators and prosecutors seek treatment programs before jail sentences recognizing that substance abuse is behind the increase in thefts.
For example, the Ohio Board of Pharmacy works closely with the Ohio Pharmacists Recovery Network that helps “assess, refer to treatment and monitor” pharmacists, techs and interns with drug dependencies.
Criminal prosecutors also refer those found guilty of pharmacy drug thefts to treatment programs.
For example, Paul Soucie is an assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor who says while he has seen an increase in thefts among pharmacists and technicians, he will seek treatment programs over jail if it’s clear that drugs were not being stolen and then sold on the streets or patients were not harmed or deprived of drugs as a result of thefts.
Drug diversion and treatment is an issue the pharmacy profession is taking seriously as well.
The American Pharmacy Association’s Institute on Substance Use Disorders this month offered pharmacists a seminar on continuing education including a 12-step programs and understanding substance abuse.
Among the presenters was Jake Nichols, a recovering pharmacist who was once charged with 500 felony counts involving opioids he obtained through false prescriptions.
"In my mind," says Nichols, "I justified that I wasn’t stealing because I was paying for it."
Instead of jail time, Nichols was offered treatment and is now a leading advocate for treatment—operating his own program for health professionals struggling with substance abuse.
“We are unfortunately seeing a rise in health care providers—especially pharmacists—that are struggling with substance abuse issues and it’s not just pharmacists, it’s support staff and ancillary staff like pharmacy technicians and other folks who are in the pharmacy.”
Nichols says Ohio’s Pharmacy Board is among the best in the nation in providing treatment help
Meanwhile, the pharmacy board is beginning to look into additional ways to combat theft—including working with pharmacies on a possible plan to increase minimum staffing—that would reduce stress, long hours and provide more eyeballs behind the counter to discourage thefts.