By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist
Drug diversion is an increasingly important factor in the opioid overdose crisis. A new report from Protenus found that 18.7 million pills, valued at around $164 million, were lost due to drug diversion in the United States during the first half of 2018. This represents a vast increase over 2017, when 20.9 million pills were diverted during the entire year.
As we’ve described previously, drug diversion in the supply chain is a vast, complex and old phenomenon. And it is rapidly worsening.
According to the textbook, “Prescription Drug Diversion and Pain,” drug thefts from hospitals “have increased significantly within the past decade as street prices have climbed sharply for diverted prescription opioids and benzodiazepines.”
In other words, the steep cuts in opioid production that began in 2017 aren’t working. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions was wrong when he said, "The more a drug is diverted, the more its production should be limited." A tightening supply has actually resulted in more diversion.
Drug diversion can be broadly divided into three categories: clinical diversion, personal diversion and industrial diversion. The first, according to Protenus, is drug diversion by healthcare workers. The second is the sale or transfer by a patient who received a legitimate prescription to a third party. And the third is everything else, from diversion by employees at manufacturing facilities to theft in distribution centers or pharmacies.
Personal diversion has gotten substantial attention in recent years. Prescription drug monitoring databases, pain agreements, and urine drug testing are all intended to help prevent such diversion.
Clinical drug diversion is a long-standing problem in healthcare that has garnered more interest recently. The bipartisan opioid bill recently passed by Congress includes a provision that allows hospice workers to destroy opioid medication that has expired or is no longer needed by a patient. The National Institutes of Health has also awarded a grant to further expand efforts to detect opioid and other drug theft in hospital systems.
Industrial diversion is less well known, but appears to be a longstanding problem. In the book “Dopesick,” journalist Beth Macy writes that as early as 2001 the DEA was investigating lax security standards at Purdue Pharma manufacturing plants after the arrest of two Purdue employees accused of trying to steal thousands of pills.
Between 2009 and 2012, over 63,000 thefts of opioids and other controlled substances were reported to the DEA. Pharmacies (66%) and hospitals (19%) accounted for the vast majority of those drug thefts.
And in 2007, an audit of CMS Medicare Part D payments identified 228,000 prescription payments with invalid prescriber identifications for Schedule II drugs.
In other words, tens of thousands of drug thefts and hundreds of thousands of fraudulent prescriptions are occurring annually, leading to millions of prescription pills entering the illegal market. This may help explain how OxyContin entered the black market so quickly and completely.
As Beth Macy writes: “The town pharmacist on the other line was incredulous: “Man, we only got it a month or two ago. And you’re telling me it’s already on the street?””
The National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators and the DEA Diversion Control Division are attempting to address industrial diversion. But available evidence suggests there is much more work needed to secure the entire prescription drug supply chain.
As the opioid overdose crisis continues to evolve toward poly-drug substance abuse, drug diversion will play an increasingly significant role in the illegal supply of prescription pharmaceuticals unless the entire supply chain is secured. This will require far more than the easy tasks of checking a prescription database or legislating pill counts. The hard part of reducing drug diversion remains to be done.
Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.