7NEWS Investigates: Disappearing Drugs At Mass. Pharmacies

BOSTON (WHDH) -

In a state gripped by the opioid crisis, addicts and dealers will do anything to get their hands on prescription pills.

But what happens when those addicts and dealers work at a pharmacy?

7News uncovered tens of thousands of disappearing drugs at Massachusetts pharmacies and pharmacy workers caught in the act.

In-store surveillance video, captured inside a southern Massachusetts pharmacy in 2014, shows a pharmacy technician at work. It shows him taking a bottle of pills off of a shelf, lifting up his shirt and quickly putting one hand in his pocket.

Nearly 400 pills disspeared from the pharmacy he worked at that same year. And police say that the worker admitted to stealing opioid painkillers for months and selling them on the street.

A different piece of in-store surveillance video, captured inside a Boston-area pharmacy that same year, shows another pharmacy worker pouring opioids into a bottle. Police said that the video then shows him walking away from the counter and subtly slipping the bottle into his right pocket.

Police also said that worker stole 19,000 pills over the course of several years to support his own addiction.

“They can essentially get anything they want,” said John Burke, who spent nearly a half century in law enforcement fighting drug theft in Ohio and now trains and consults others as the head of Pharmaceutical Diversion Education.

And with some drugs fetching a price on the street of $30.00 per pill, “There’s some real profit potential here, too,” Burke said.

Whether driven by profit or addiction, Burke said pill pilfering by pharmacy staff is getting worse.

“More knowledge of, ‘Hey, there’s a drug in the pharmacy where I’m a pharmacy technician and I can either get high off of it or my friends can,'” Burke said of the temptation for some pharmacy workers.

Another local pharmacy worker hand-wrote a confession to police in December stating, “I’ve become homeless with my son and I needed to make some fast cash.”

Records show that more than 10,000 doses, many of them opiods, disappeared from her pharmacy.

“Sometimes, when those losses are finally discovered, that person may be long gone,” Burke said.

7News obtained dozens of reports of drugs vanishing from behind the counter in Massachusetts, many of them opioids. The records reveal that about 59,000 prescription pills disappeared from pharmacies in the state just last year.

But that true total?

“I can guarantee you it’s higher than that. Some things just don’t get reported,” Burke said.

“It’s a violation of trust and you definitely feel violated,” said Karen Horbowicz, board chair for the Massachusetts Pharmacists Association.

Even she had a former coworker who was caught taking tablets.

“The vast majority of us are very concerned about the opioid crisis. We take our jobs very seriously,” Horbowicz said.

And in the midst of that crisis, the State Board of Registration in Pharmacy has tripled it’s number of investigators. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which oversees the pharmacy board, said that as a result, the number of board investigations into missing prescription pills in Massachusetts has spiked from 32 in 2013 to 95 in 2016. Pharmacy board inspections have also surged from 115 in 2013 to 1,816 in 2016.

Additionally, more inspections are unannounced and they often include double checking pill counts.

“They have vamped up pharmacy inspections and when they come in to do an inspection, one of the first things that they ask for is the controlled substance log,” Horbowicz said. “They’ll pick up some random drugs and they’ll say, ‘OK count it for me.'”

“I think that the Board of Pharmacy is taking this very seriously and wants to ensure that all licensees are doing their part,” Horbowicz said.

Experts say pharmacies need lots of surveillance cameras, top of the line safes and self-audits.

Burke also urges vigilant vetting of staff members.

“Be very careful who you hire, who you allow behind the counter,” Burke said.

Because the bitter pill of opioid abuse can impact even those safeguarding the supply.

“The opioid crisis knows no bounds. It doesn’t discriminate. It impacts people from all walks of life,” Horbowicz said.

DPH says the cases of pharmacy workers stealing prescription pills are rare, especially given that there are 1,200 pharmacies in Massachusetts.

“The vast, vast majority of these folks that work there and own pharmacies are legitimate folks trying to do the right thing for customers,” Burke said.

But next month, there is a public hearing on new rules that would make surveillance camera mandatory in pharmacies which, among other measure, would also increase security.

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