ABC 6 Investigates: Nurse Prescription Thefts

Updated: 03/05/2014 7:19 AM
Created: 03/04/2014 5:46 PM
By: Ellery McCardle

(ABC 6 NEWS) -- An ABC 6 News Investigation finds nurses stealing prescription drugs from their employers and patients is a growing problem in our area.

With thousands of nurses in Southeast Minnesota, we felt it important to look at what they're are being disciplined for.

After all, they're caring for you or your family members.

Drug diversion was the second most common reason local nurses were disciplined since 2009.

24 of the 86 nurses disciplined by the Minnesota Board of Nursing in the past five years with current addresses in either Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn Mower or Olmsted counties were for diverting drugs.

Dr. Keith Berge is an anesthesiologist and president of the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice says he's not surprised by our findings.

"Anyone in a healthcare facility can figure out a way to get their hands on these prescription drugs and they do," said Dr. Berge.

He says over the years drug diversion of things like prescription painkillers has become a huge problem.

"I think it's a reflection of what's going on a broader society. There is truly on epidemic to prescription opioids," said Dr. Berge.

In one of the cases we found, a nurse was questioned about 438 pills of different medications that went missing in two weeks.

Here's how the disciplinary process works. Let's say a nurse is suspected of stealing drugs from the hospital where he or she works. The Minnesota Nursing Board gets a complaint usually from a family member, patient or employer. The allegation is looked into, the board reviews it decide if discipline is needed. Many times the nurse is referred to the Health Professional Services Program, which monitors those with health issues like a drug addiction.

Republican Senator Carla Nelson of Rochester, says there's a problem with the reporting process. She says right now, employers don't have to report drug theft to the nursing board. Under her proposed law that would change.

"We're at a crisis point and this is a small step to close that hole. Bottom line is its about patient safety," said Nelson.

She worked with Dr. Berge for a few years to come up with the proposal. One they say should pass the legislature this year.

"It strikes us as being a no-brainer. I can't think of any argument to say this is a bad idea," said Dr. Berge.

We also found that of the nurses disciplined for drug diversion in our area, only one had their license taken away for good. The rest of the nurses were suspended to some degree.

We know the Minnesota Nursing Board supports Senator Nelson's bill, but it declined our request for an on camera interview. Rene Cronquist, of the board, told us over the phone of our findings "The behaviors are concerning whether it's related to drugs or not. What the disciplinary action does tell us is the board is taking these cases seriously."

Remember, this story represents a fraction of nurses in the area. There are thousands more, who do a good job every day, without doing anything wrong.

Senator Nelson says a hearing has not been scheduled yet for the bill. Stay with ABC 6 News throughout the legislative session. We will let you know when and if the bill moves forward.