Trust but verify
Don’t risk your DEA license. The three keys to preventing employee theft of controlled drugs are evaluate, investigate and reiterate.
Let’s start with a simple fact: Employees can and will steal from your drug inventory if given the opportunity. A Drug Diversion Digest report tracking the diversion of controlled substances over a six-month period — read it at http://bit.ly/2NoOWvR — found that 71% of incidents involved an employee. Sadly, this often includes people you consider “family.”
Theft comes in many forms and happens when greed, entitlement and addiction overtake good judgment, ethics and values. Just because it might not “feel” like stealing to an employee doesn’t mean it’s not stealing. Stealing is stealing. There’s no gray area.
A Triple Blow
Internal theft creates a triple loss. Financially, you lose hard-earned cash and inventory. Emotionally, you have to deal with the reality that someone you trusted stole from you. And operationally, you have to replace a key member of your team.
In most cases, the initial reaction to being a victim of internal controlled-substance theft is shock and disbelief. This is because thieves steal something more valuable than money or goods; they steal trust. Once you recover from the initial shock of being violated by someone you trusted, your emotions can quickly turn to frustration and anger.
Though only a few bad apples exist, a theft that happens to you can feel like the whole produce section fell on your head. While trusting employees again is possible, you must understand that any trust given must come with specific parameters. Those parameters mean that you, as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration registrant, must have intimate knowledge of your drug inventory regardless of who was entrusted with that extremely important task. You also must respond proactively to correct the incident and implement preventive measures.
What can you do to protect yourself from the threat of internal controlled-substance theft? Protecting your veterinary practice requires preventive measures and verification that together boil down to three core principles: evaluate, investigate and reiterate.
Let’s examine all three.
1. Begin by evaluating your security and deterrent systems. In 2018, my company, Titan Group, inspected 94 veterinary facilities across the United States. At least 80% of them lacked proper protocols for deterring internal theft or providing evidence that a crime was committed.
To our surprise, we frequently discovered that the most basic theft deterrent, closed-circuit television coverage, was rarely installed, and if the facility had cameras and a recording system, the cameras were not positioned properly to gather evidence.
Many practice owners think that a security infrastructure is too expensive or cost-prohibitive, but the time and money spent to implement a security system and deterrents will pay dividends now and in the future. Investing in a deterrent system costs far less than recovering from an internal drug theft when your practice, reputation and livelihood are at stake. The costs you incur from DEA fines, legal fees, reputation damage and having to hire and train new employees can be huge.
During the evaluation process, be very vocal with employees, advising them that new safeguards are being implemented and that anyone who doesn’t strictly adhere to controlled-substance policies and procedures will face severe consequences.
Remind your staff that the security systems and deterrents will be periodically reviewed and updated. Then be sure to hold yourself accountable to this proclamation as it can prevent you from falling victim to future thefts.
Keep in mind that thieves can be creative and tricky. When presented with a new challenge, they might become more motivated to probe your systems for weaknesses. You should do the same. While you might have implemented the latest in theft-deterrent tools and technologies, the risk still exists from more sophisticated would-be thieves.
2. After you’ve evaluated your security and deterrent systems, investigate your staff. This piece of advice might make you uncomfortable, but performing background investigations on new and existing employees is imperative. The need might not have been necessary 20 years ago, but today’s opioid epidemic has made it critical.
An employee can turn from your greatest asset to your greatest liability if you don’t remain vigilant and proactive. Thinking that drug diversion can’t — or won’t — happen to you can have devastating consequences.
Your investigation might lead you to fire an employee. Though unfortunate and emotionally uncomfortable, this action is the new reality of creating articulate, effective safeguards that protect you as a DEA registration holder. It’s not a witch hunt — you are simply taking the most appropriate path to protect your practice as well as the health and safety of the communities you serve and on which your livelihood depends.
3. Finally, reiterate all directives to employees by implementing ongoing training and education. Training should focus on adherence to new policies and procedures, making a clear point to explain the disciplinary process and consequences for those who put your DEA registration at risk. Remember that training an existing, competent employee is far less costly than identifying, hiring and training a new one.
Protect Against the Inevitable
Drug diversion is an insidious crime that can be difficult to prove if the right safeguards are not implemented. Have a plan and be prepared to make an example out of anyone who violates your trust or the trust of your business.
Sadly, doing so might mean pressing criminal charges against someone, but the industry can’t afford to continue to just fire employees and not involve law enforcement or the state veterinary board. There have been documented instances in which fired employees were hired at other facilities and their subsequent illegal actions resulted in fatalities.
You have a legal and social responsibility to ensure that the employee you let go for drug theft is not allowed to work as an “authorized employee” at another practice. Let the state veterinary board decide if or when that person may return to the profession.
Know that the first person the public prosecutor will reach out to is that employee’s former employer. The last thing you need is an aggressive prosecutor pressing charges against you for criminal negligence.
A Privilege, Not A Right
Your DEA registration is a privilege that can be removed if your employees put you or your practice at risk. Twenty years ago, the DEA rarely showed up unexpectedly at a veterinary office to conduct a regulatory inspection or audit. Today, practices are under the microscope, with unannounced visits by both the DEA and aggressive state regulatory authorities on the rise.
Your responsibility is to make sure your drug inventory is safe from theft, not only to protect your license but also to protect your community. The last thing you want to find out is that a neighborhood teenager died from an overdose that originated with a drug theft committed by someone on your staff.
Jack Teitelman is the founder and president of Titan Group, a regulatory compliance, drug security and anti-diversion solutions provider. He is a retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration supervisory special agent.