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CDC labels prescription drug theft, overdoses an 'epidemic'

-A pharmacist counts oxycodone hydrochloride pills sold under the prescription brand name OxyContin. Pennsylvania used to prohibit pharmacy technicians from accessing Schedule II drugs, a class that includes oxycodone, but a rule change removed that restriction. File photo

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Prescription drug thefts at pharmacies are growing in step with an alarming increase in the number of prescription drug overdose deaths that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled “an epidemic.”

Pharmacy inventories face threats from armed thieves as well as pharmacy employees who pilfer painkillers intended for patients, according to government data, pharmacists and police.

The New York Police Department last week announced a plan to plant GPS devices in empty “bait bottles” of painkillers on pharmacy shelves in hope of tracking sometimes-violent thieves who supply the black market with oxycodone and other narcotics.

There were 698 reports of armed robberies and 1.48 million units of prescription medication stolen at pharmacies in 2010, according to the most recent data from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

There has been a steady increase in such incidents since 2006, when 385 armed robberies were reported and 712,684 units stolen.

Pennsylvania had 35 armed robberies at pharmacies in 2010.

Data on pharmacy employees who steal from their supply are spotty.

The Pennsylvania Board of Pharmacy suspended the licenses of 20 pharmacists in 2012. At least half of the suspensions were related to prescription drugs the pharmacists stole, sold or consumed illegally.

Only the most egregious cases receive attention from news outlets throughout the state. Many of the disciplinary notices posted to the board's website are vague, only occasionally specifying the reason for license suspensions.

“Nobody really wants to broadcast that there's an impaired professional or health care worker,” said Scott Drab, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. “Since it's treated as substance abuse and a disease, no one wants to broadcast it. Where it comes out is when a patient could have been harmed.”

That's what happened in the case of former pharmacy technician Cheryl L. Ashcraft, 43, of New Eagle.

The Pennsylvania attorney general charged Ashcraft this month with stealing doses of the painkiller oxycodone intended for 362 patients at Jefferson Regional Medical Center. Authorities say Ashcraft acknowledged consuming the pills, which she switched with look-alike medications not intended to treat pain.

A Jefferson Regional Hospital spokeswoman declined to comment last week on whether pharmacy supervisors tightened restrictions on handling painkillers. Hospital officials say they are not aware of any patients being harmed.

Ashcraft did not return calls. She faces a preliminary hearing Jan. 30 before District Judge Pat Capolupo in Jefferson Hills.

Pharmacist David Dworsky of Marshall said he does not permit pharmacy technicians to handle painkillers such as oxycodone.

“Even though legally they're allowed, I don't allow them to handle those drugs because you can't watch them the whole time to see what they're doing,” Dworsky said. “You're supposed to check when they're done.”

Dworsky said the state used to prohibit pharmacy technicians from accessing Schedule II drugs, a class that includes oxycodone.

A rule change removed that restriction, Department of State spokesman Ron Ruman said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 36,000 drug overdose deaths in 2008. Of those, more than 20,000 involved prescription drugs, and most of the time, the painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone or methadone were the culprits, according to the most recent CDC data available.

Sales of those drugs have increased more than three-fold. Drug overdose rates have tripled since 1990, according to the CDC.

Ruman said the state does not maintain a searchable database that compiles the reasons behind pharmacist suspensions and other reprimands. Consumers can search the state's site to determine if a pharmacist's license is active, expired or suspended.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or

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