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Rochester lawmakers look to crack down on hospital drug thieves

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ST. PAUL — It's a patient's worst nightmare.

A hospital worker secretly steals a patient's pain medication and replaces the contaminated syringe with saline solution, exposing the patient to a potentially deadly virus, such as hepatitis C. It's a problem that is becoming all too common, according to Dr. Keith Berge, chairman of Mayo Clinic's Drug Diversion Prevention Committee.

"It's a very big, very bad problem, and it's getting worse," Berge said.

Between 2005 and 2011, reports of drug thefts at Minnesota health care facilities jumped from 16 in 2006 to 52 in 2010, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.

A recent case in New England offers a prime example of the potential dangers posed by this theft. A New Hampshire radiology technician is accused of exposing thousands of patients to hepatitis C in eight different states.

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It's cases like this that have prompted Berge and some lawmakers to call for changes in the state's reporting laws. Minnesota law does not require health care facilities to notify the state's licensing boards if an employee is found to be stealing drugs.

"The boards' responsibilities are to protect the people of Minnesota," he said. "The act of drug diversion is a felony-level crime. It is required that the boards are made aware of any other felony crime."

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, is sponsoring a bill requiring health care facilities to report to the state's licensing boards when an employee is caught stealing drugs. She started working on the bill two years ago with Berge after reading about the case of Jerold Mullins, a Princeton, Minn., nurse who stole medications from the hospital where he worked for 15 years, even after going through a state-run drug treatment program three times.

"I was concerned about putting mandates on employers, of course, but there isn't an employer who wouldn't want to make sure a person who is diverting patients' drugs is reported," Nelson said.

Nelson's bill cleared a key committee and is awaiting action on the Senate floor. Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, is sponsoring a similar measure in the House.

The bill has sparked concerns among some groups that it might deter health care workers from self-reporting their addiction. State law allows workers to undergo a confidential drug addiction program through the Health Professionals Services Program. Andrea Ledger, the Minnesota Nurses Association's director of political and legislative action, said the group wants to make sure these workers aren't penalized.

"We don't want employers to be forced to report the nurse for discipline to the board when the nurse has already self-reported, is engaged in self-treatment and is on track to rehabilitate," she said.

The association has been working with lawmakers to craft language to protect employees who self-report for addiction treatment. Ledger said she is optimistic a deal can be reached. Liebling, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, said her priority this session has been to focus on bills to improve patient safety. This bill fits in perfectly.

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She added, "It's a patient safety issue, and it seems like a logical enough thing to do."

Related Topics: CARLA NELSONTINA LIEBLING
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