Staff are raiding Minnesota nursing homes and stealing painkillers

In the spring of 2019, Eric Lynn made a humble request from the nursing home where he was caring for his mother, who was dying of Alzheimer’s disease. He asked her to die peacefully and without any unnecessary pain.

However, Lynn’s confidence is shattered when she discovers that someone working the night shift has stolen several doses of her mother’s morphine and anti-anxiety medication. No one was able to identify the perpetrator or do enough to investigate, he said. Shaken by the revelation, Lynn checked her 65-year-old mother out of the facility the next morning and moved her to her family’s home near St. Louis. Cloud, he died four days later.

Lynn, a plumber, said: “I couldn’t bear to see my mother die alone and in pain. “The little thing he had – his sense of peace – was stolen from him.”

With the opioid abuse epidemic on the rise, Minnesota nursing homes have become attractive targets for drug addicts and drug dealers. New research shows that nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state are often failing to protect seniors from the theft of highly addictive pain relievers — thousands of pills are stolen each year by people trusted to care for vulnerable residents. The consequences are devastating: many elderly people suffer for long periods of time without knowing the cause of their suffering.

Over the past eight years, more than 11,300 medications, primarily prescription painkillers, have been stolen from at least 368 nursing homes and assisted living sites in Minnesota, according to a recently published study. In some cases, surveillance is so lax that thefts go undetected for months, resulting in a dozen or more victims in the same location. According to an analysis of 107 substantiated drug fraud reports investigated by the Minnesota Department of Health, the average theft occurred over 56 days, with more than 30 doses stolen per resident.

Researchers say the perpetrators, almost half of whom are nurses, sometimes use ingenious methods. They left their rooms with hard drugs in their pockets, belts, bras and stockings stuffed into their pockets. Sometimes they were replaced by over-the-counter drugs like aspirin. They received liquid drugs diluted in syringes and crushed tablets—they kept some of the drugs for themselves. The researchers carefully concealed their tracks by resealing punctured drug packages, forging the signatures of drug clerks, and stuffing pill packages into crushers.

The researchers found that some workers had taken the stolen drugs while on duty, endangering patient care.

“It’s gotten out of hand,” said Eilon Caspi, a gerontologist and professor at the University of Connecticut who led the research project along with Purdue University researchers.

While not new, the problem of opioid theft at high-profile institutions has been exacerbated by the growing opioid epidemic and the state’s workforce crisis, which has hampered anti-theft efforts. The state’s long-term care teams say backlogs of investigations are preventing them from quickly identifying perpetrators. The Minnesota Board of Nursing can take six months to a year to complete an investigation after a theft is reported. At the same time, the nurse can jump from one big house to another, stealing medicine everywhere, without realizing that it is a danger to the patients.

Thieves have also become increasingly brazen, long-term care administrators say, taking advantage of access to painkillers by pilfering hundreds of pills over the course of months. In 2018, a nurse at an assisted living facility in Grand Rapids stole more than 1,900 tablets over two years by placing them in an “overflowing storage area” in her office. When the facility ran out of drugs, the nurse made excuses as to why she couldn’t get them. According to the state investigation, 13 residents were without pain medication.

“Our concern is that it’s not just addicts stealing for themselves,” said Patty Cullen, president and CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota. “We’re seeing cases where the amount of stolen drugs far exceeds what one person can use.”

But it can be difficult for the public to know about these crimes and where they are happening. That’s because state investigations of drug thefts in long-term care homes have lumped thefts of personal items, such as jewelry, into the broader category of “financial exploitation.” Even in cases where drugs are stolen, the term “theft” does not often appear in government abuse reports. Instead, regulators call it “drug diversion” — a term that some patient care advocates argue reduces crime.

“We need to stop cleaning up this atrocity by calling it drug diversion, and it’s the criminal theft of pain medication,” said Christine Sundberg, executive director of Elder Voice Family Advocates.

For years, drug thefts have been a known workplace hazard in nursing homes, prompting a number of security protocols. Each dose of a controlled substance administered must be documented and a drug count performed on each shift to detect discrepancies. Medications with a high risk of theft should be stored in two sealed containers accessible only to authorized personnel, according to long-term care teams.

Recognizing the need for more change, the Department of Health and the state’s long-term care industry groups came together in 2019 to develop a long list of recommended prevention measures, including hiring stronger practices and immediately reporting suspected thieves to professional licensing boards.

However, law enforcement officers face unique challenges investigating such theft because of the large volume of controlled drugs and the large number of rotating officers who have access to them. This spring, more than 240 prescription pills for three residents went missing from the assisted-living Sanctuary in West St. Louis over a period of several months. Paul. State health investigators were unable to identify the perpetrator because of the facility’s poor record-keeping and lack of procedural controls, according to a state report.

A spokeswoman for the sanctuary said the facility retrained staff on medication administration and changed its procedures to require two staff members to sign for all drug items. After an internal investigation, he said, the facility fired the outside nurse believed to be responsible for the theft.

“The biggest problem is that so many people have access to drugs at any time,” said Brian Sturgeon, West St. Paul is a police officer and former narcotics investigator. “This inventory won’t help [of drugs] is often done incorrectly – if it is done at all.”

After drug thefts are discovered, family members feel guilty and regret not seeing the warning signs.

Lois Gildea, a research nurse at the University of Minnesota, said she had no reason to suspect that a nurse at an assisted living facility in Wayzata was stealing pain medication from her mother-in-law. Then one day, Gildea’s hired personal assistant noticed that some of the pills in his dispenser were a little lighter in color than the prescribed drug. Worried, Gildea placed a small camera inside the small bear next to her mother’s bed. In the video, it can be seen that the nurse is stealing drugs while her mother-in-law is in the bathroom,” he said.

“The most troubling part was that he didn’t know how long he was in discomfort and pain,” Gildea said.

Kari Shaws said her 88-year-old mother is still traumatized by what happened three years ago.

A home health aide was found to be stealing drugs from her rheumatoid arthritis mother, LaVonne Borsheim, and switching them with allergy pills. The transplant caused his mother’s health to deteriorate so dangerously that family members thought she was dying. She would sleep most of the day and then wake up in pain – sometimes crying and begging for pain medication. According to Shaw, no one suspected the home nurse until Borsheim’s husband took her to the hospital and a blood test showed she had no opioids in her system.

La Wang, a nurse hired to care for Borsheim, pleaded guilty in May 2019 to stealing prescription opioids and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

“It was a nightmare,” Shaw said. “My mother used to say that the pain was unbearable, but no one could understand why.

Now, Borsheim is afraid to be alone in her room at an assisted-living home in Maple Grove. He spends most of his day in the lobby of the building, playing dominoes and sharing stories, and only returns to his bedroom before bed. “When someone invades your personal space and almost kills you, it’s just—” Shaw said, searching for the right words. – This is an unforgettable memory.

The following findings are based on a review of 107 state Department of Health investigation reports that identified incidents of drug theft in Minnesota nursing homes between 2013 and 2021.

Number of drugs stolen: 11,328

Number of casualties: 368

Average number of stolen doses per inhabitant: 30

Average duration of thefts: 56 days

Percentage of drugs stolen from aid agencies: 85%

Percentage of drugs stolen from nursing homes: 15%

Sources: Eilon Caspi, University of Connecticut; Wei-Lin Xue, Purdue University School of Nursing; Pee-Ju (Marian) Liu, Purdue University School of Nursing

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