How Virginia employers enable nurse drug theft

Despite a state program in place to keep drug addicted nurses in the workforce, 900 Virginia nurses have been disciplined for theft or abuse of prescription drugs since 2007, according to an investigation by the News Leader.

Based on an analysis of public records, the publication found that the state may actualy enable drug theft. It found:

  • Patients across Virginia over the last decade did not take necessary medication due to theft by nurses.

  • Employers who discover drug abuse among nurses often don't report them to the state.

  • Although state law mandates fines for employers who do not report nurses' drug addiction to the state, they are hardly ever punished for failure to do so.

  • Virginia doesn't require criminal background checks for nurses before licensing them to practice and healthcare is not classified as a high-risk sector such as trucking or airline travel, which means random drug tests are not required.

More than 100,000 healthcare workers abuse or are addicted to prescription drugs, making "drug diversion"--the official term for theft of drugs by medical personnel--a major problem within the industry, FierceHealthcare previously reported

"Substance abuse in nursing is the elephant in the room," Pat Graham, a psychiatric nurse and trainer at Western State Hospital in Staunton, told the News Leader. "No company says, 'If you're hired and you have a history, we have a substance abuse program.' We dare not be transparent."

Advocates hoped the monitoring model of treatment, which was added to Virginia law in 1998, would give addicted nurses more options. The model treats addiction as a disease and anticipates relapses, encouraging participants to remain in the workforce, possibly under supervision, while they combat the disease, with the option to get a stay of discipline and keep their record confidential if they enroll in the program.

But advocates admit that this model is risky if not perfectly executed, according to the article. Only about 34 percent of nurses successfully complete the program, compared to much higher averages of about 60 percent for most other states, with the retention rate in Florida as high as 80 percent.

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