Kuster, Walz Examine Drug Diversion Risks At VA
(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations conducted a hearing on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) oversight of controlled substances and it’s Drug Free Workplace Program in VA medical facilities. The hearing examined a recently released GAO report that found problems with oversight and internal controls for prescription drugs that put VA medical centers at risk for drug diversion. Following the hearing HVAC Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-MN) and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Ranking Member Annie Kuster (NH-02) released the following statements:
“The health and safety of our nation’s veterans is the foremost responsibility of the Department of Veterans Affairs and we cannot tolerate employees who threaten the wellbeing of veterans through drug use or the theft of drugs from the VA,” said Congresswoman Kuster. “Reports of increased theft of controlled substance at VA and other health facilities are deeply disturbing. We’ve seen firsthand in New Hampshire the serious public health risk and devastating impact of healthcare employees stealing and using opioid pain medications. I hope that we can learn from the testimony today and work together to improve oversight of controlled substances within the VA.”
“The recent uptick of drug theft at VA facilities is extremely concerning, and poses serious health risks not just to veterans, but to people in communities across the United States; the VA simply must do better at securing and accounting for its supply of drugs and medicine,” Rep. Walz said. “When drugs like oxycodone go missing from healthcare facilities, too often they end up in the hands of someone battling opioid addiction. While hospital systems across the country have experienced increases of drug theft, the VA must do everything in its power to quickly implement controls to ensure these drugs are used for their intended propose.”
Ranking Member Kuster’s Opening Statement as Prepared for Delivery:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and thank you to our witnesses, and to all of you, who have joined us today.
This afternoon, we are again examining VA’s role in ensuring prescription drugs are safely controlled in VA medical facilities. Less than a year ago, we held a hearing on this issue in Colorado because the Drug Enforcement Agency found several violations at the Denver VAMC.
We continue to hear disturbing reports in hospitals and clinics in our communities that some healthcare employees are stealing controlled substances for their own personal use. We know that these cases are on the rise throughout the country.
One healthcare employee diverting controlled substances can be a serious public health risk, and can cause significant harm to many patients. One technician who was injecting himself with fentanyl at a hospital in New Hampshire, at the Baltimore VA Medical Center, and in more than a dozen hospitals in other states, infected up to 50 patients with Hepatitis C. Some of these victims were veterans.
From this example it is clear that the nationwide trend of opioid diversion also impacts the VA. The VA health system is one of the nation’s leading prescribers of opioids. Diversion in the VA threatens the safety of Veterans and hampers efforts to address the opioid epidemic. Preventing diversion of these substances should be a paramount concern.
This is why I find the GAO and IG’s findings so troubling. It is unacceptable that some VA medical facilities are not conducting routine inspections to prevent and identify drug diversion. Background investigations, that could potentially identify employees found to have diverted drugs, were backlogged at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. Healthcare employees at the Atlanta Medical Center were not subject to drug testing for 6 months which could identify diversion or prescription drug abuse.
We need to get to the bottom of why these safeguards and processes were not being followed. I want to know if the processes, when followed, work to prevent drug diversion. I want to know if VA has the resources it needs to conduct inspections, background checks, and administer its drug free workplace program.
I am also concerned that VA HR employees are not exempt from the President’s hiring freeze. The GAO and IG identified that staff need more personnel and more training to properly conduct these inspections. They also identified the need for more HR personnel to address the background check backlog at the Atlanta VAMC. Without adequate support staff in place, VA medical facilities will struggle to comply with the procedures and programs they must follow to ensure our veterans receive safe, high quality care.
Finally, I look forward to learning about progress VA has made under its Opioid Safety Initiative to bring down the rate of opioids prescribed to veterans. We must do everything we can to help veterans suffering from chronic pain, and to help our veterans struggling with substance abuse and addiction. The opioid epidemic is destroying the lives of veterans and their families in New Hampshire and across the country, and we need to work together to find innovative solutions to end this epidemic. That is why I was a proud champion of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act that we passed last congress, and we need to ensure VA is complying with the law.
Thank you Chairman Bergman, and I yield back the balance of my time.
The Subcommittee Heard From:
- Carolyn Clancy, Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Organizational Excellence, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs
- Michael A. Valentino, R. Ph., MHSA, Chief Consultant, Pharmacy Benefits Management Services, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs
- Nick Dahl, Deputy Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Evaluations, VA Office of the Inspector General
- Emorfia Valkanos, R. Ph., Health Systems Specialist, Office of Healthcare Inspections, VA Office of the Inspector General
- Randall B. Williamson, Director, Healthcare Team, U.S. Government Accountability Office
- Keith Berge, M.D., , Consultant in Anesthesiology, Chair, Mayo Clinic Enterprise-wide Medication Diversion Prevention Committee, Mayo Clinic