Hank Investigates: Drug Dumping
Our investigation found this happens every day. What some call an outdated wasteful system is causing countless pills, vials and patches to be destroyed at nursing homes across the state.
"There are hundreds of facilities like this in Massachusetts, does every one of these throw drugs away?"
- Claire Wheeler, MA Extended Care Federation
"Absolutely, every single solitary one."
Who picks up the tab for all this wasted medication? You do, it's Medicaid prescriptions, all paid for with taxpayer money!
- Dr. Arthur Bergoli
"I think it's absolutely horrible that you and I have to pay for perfectly good medication that's destroyed each month."
The problem begins because patients in nursing homes get prescriptions from special pharmacies, which for years have sealed pills into containers called "blister packs." Because there are rarely special requests from the nursing homes, those prescriptions almost always come in a 30-day supply. If a medication is changed or stopped, or a patient moves or dies, state regulations do not allow medicine packaged in these blister packs to be reused, recycled or returned to the pharmacy.
The result is disposal. This is just two weeks worth of medication from one nursing home, it's all now headed for disposal.
- Dr. Arthur Bergoli
"All this medicine is completely sealed and safe and could be used by someone else."
Now look inside just one nursing home's medication room. All of this is also waiting to be destroyed. The total statewide cost, no one knows, there are no requirements to keep track of it. But when this nurse decided she had dumped too many pills, she started calculating. Her notes show she kept track of countless pills she destroyed, it totaled millions of dollars.
- Fran Lacosse, Nurse
"I was outraged!"
In some states nursing homes can send blister packs back to the pharmacy and Medicaid gets a credit or refund. In Connecticut, they figure that'll save four million tax dollars next year! But in Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health says, "you can't do that."
"Why can't they just return these blister packs?"
- Nancy Ridley, Dept. of Public Health
"It's not safe for the patient. Once that medication leaves the pharmacy you don't know whether what comes back in is actually what was in the container when it went out."
Officials admit they've known about the drug dumping for years.
"So why is it allowed to happen?"
"We are trying to work out a system that won't allow it to happen."
Until they do, every day nurses will continue to pop taxpayers' money down the drain. We have learned two state agencies will soon issue some new voluntary guidelines designed to reduce waste, but those still will not allow return of medicines in blister packs.
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