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Drugs Disappear From Stroger Hospital

Monday, August 26, 2013
by Pam Zekman

Are missing prescription drugs from Cook County Stroger Hospital supplying illegal street sales of painkillers and other narcotics that can be abused?

That’s the concern of the Drug Enforcement Administration after its audit — requested by the county inspector general — found lax security and inadequate record-keeping at the hospital. CBS 2's Pam Zekman and the Better Government Association detail the findings in this original report. “This is a system that dispenses tens of millions of dollars of drugs ever year, and yet an untold number of pills and other narcotics are apparently disappearing,” the BGA’s Andy Shaw says.

The DEA’s audit found the hospital was not in compliance with federal regulations. Among the problems: failures to conduct regular inventories and to satisfy reporting requirements related to controlled substances. “This goes to the heart of the problem of controlled substances,” says Jack Riley, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s Chicago Field Division. “If they’re not properly accounted for and if the records aren’t up to date, these things can be diverted into the general public, onto the street.”

The missing drugs could have more severe consequences for patients like Sandra Lee, who has a seizure disorder. She recalled one time when she got home from picking up her prescriptions and discovered 60 pills were missing from what was supposed to be her three-month supply. “Without the pills it could cause a seizure,” Lee says. Shaw says that’s all too common. “This has been for years with no oversight and no accountability, according to numerous sources, including doctors, about pills disappearing from the dosages that are supposed to be going to patients,” he says.

The fact that drugs have been disappearing was particularly troubling to Riley, who says the number of victims of prescription drug abuse is rising. “It keeps me up at night. Last year, for the first time, more people died of prescription drug abuse than heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine combined,” he says.

In a letter to the county board, the Inspector General said his on-site inspections of the hospital’s receiving dock found “security practices and procedures were lax to non-existent.”

Some drugs were apparently missing or stolen from refrigerators, secured storage cabinets and nursing stations – or, while being transferred from the pharmacies to the nursing stations.

“That scares me,” Riley says. “Because that shows a total lack of control from the time that they’re acquired to the time that they’re transported to where they’re going to be administered to the patient.”

County hospital police reports document more than 80 incidents when drugs, including anti-anxiety medications such as valium and lorazepam as well as pain killers like Vicodin, morphine, demerol and oxycodone, were reported lost, missing, or stolen since 2006. They are potentially addictive painkillers that are often abused and mixed with street drugs for sale and consumption.

“Based upon the content of the police reports and our observations,” the Inspector General said, “it appears that not all missing, lost or stolen pharmaceuticals are being accurately reported.” The fact that drugs have been disappearing was particularly troubling to Riley, who says the number of victims of prescription drug abuse is rising.

“It keeps me up at night. Last year, for the first time, more people died of prescription drug abuse than heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine combined,” Riley says.

Now, the DEA is working with the hospital to tighten up procedures. “I see no difference in a controlled substance going out the back door of a hospital as I do a Latin King selling heroin with a pistol in his hand on a street corner,” Riley says.

In a written statement to CBS 2 and the BGA, Dr. Ram Raju, the CEO of the Cook County Health and Hospitals, said the health system has cooperated fully with the DEA and the county’s independent Inspector General. “We have addressed each finding and recommendation and have taken immediate action to ensure that all necessary pharmaceutical controls are in place throughout the system,” Dr. Raju said, “including implementing new information technology systems and operational process improvements.”

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