By Richard Whitby The Daily Star
---- — The state is investigating the possible theft of blank prescription pads from Bassett Medical Center, a spokeswoman for the hospital confirmed Monday.
“Bassett is cooperating with the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement on an investigation into missing prescription forms,” Karen Huxtable-Hooker said. “Because the investigation is ongoing and not yet concluded, we don’t have many details.”
She declined to describe their disappearance as a theft.
However, a state Health Department spokesman termed the case an “alleged theft” in confirming the investigation. He, too, declined to provide details.
“The department is aware of and investigating the alleged theft of prescription pads from Bassett hospital,” spokesman Jeffrey Hammond said last week. “The investigation is ongoing.”
It was unclear how many pads were missing or stolen. Prescription pads typically contain 100 blanks, each of which has a unique alphanumeric identification code.
They are issued by the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, a unit of the state Health Department.
According to an internal Health Department memo from 2011 that was obtained by another media outlet and posted online, the street value of a prescription blank in New York City was $100 to $300. The blank forms are most often used to obtain various brands of oxycodone, the memo said, adding that the street value of a 30-milligram oxycodone pill was $25-$35.
The memo was written in connection with the department’s conclusion that a “significant number of thefts and losses” of prescription pads was occurring in the city, primarily at hospitals operated by the municipal Health and Hospitals Corp. It went on to say those institutions were “not adequately safeguarding the prescription forms.”
It estimated 1.4 million stolen or counterfeit blanks were circulating in the city.
Lt. Douglas Brenner of the Oneonta Police Department said the problem is extensive. “We’ve had similar cases,” he said.
“A while ago, we had an arrest in Oneonta, where someone had tried to pass a forged prescription, and it turned into a larger investigation, involving several other counties,” Brenner said. “This person either forged or (had) stolen prescription pads from another area and way was trying to pass them through a large part of New York state. And it resulted in several arrests for us and for other agencies.”
“Hydrocodone or oxycodone,” he said without hesitation when asked which drugs the illegal forms usually prescribe. “Those are big.”
The Health Department publishes an online list of serial numbers for lost or stolen state prescription pads and blanks. The list has more than 8,500 entries going back to January 2001, meaning that nearly 700 a year, or just fewer than two per day, are lost or stolen.
As of May 17, there were 316 entries for this year. The reports tend to run in batches. For example, on April 16, alone, 40 pads were listed as lost or stolen all with similar identification sequences meaning that 4,000 prescription blanks were on the streets, possibly in the same area. The list does not indicate the sources of the lost or stolen prescription blanks.
Prescription blanks are theft targets because they’re difficult to counterfeit, the result of printing changes made in 2006. Among the anti-counterfeiting features are the serial number, a printing technique in which the word “void” shows up on any photocopied or scanned blanks, a state seal and watermark in the background that are difficult to reproduce, a rectangle that turns white when a finger is pressed against it and a bar code by which a pharmacist can determine a blank’s history.
According to Health Department regulations, “It is the responsibility of a registered facility to obtain all official prescription forms and facility labels for use, to assign such forms and labels to its staff practitioners and to ensure the security of all such forms and labels.”
The regulation does not specify how institutions or practitioners should “ensure the security” of the pads beyond requiring them to “establish a system of control and security” that includes keeping records of inventory and distribution to staff members, requiring that pads be “secure when not in use” and ensuring that it does not have an “excessive number of such forms and labels.”
“Bassett follows the safeguards required by the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement,” Hutxtable-Hooker said.
Theft of prescription blanks is a widespread and longstanding problem, but New York law does not classify the theft or possession of blanks as a serious criminal offense. However, attempts to use such forms can be prosecuted as fraud.
A bill to toughen the law, S2940, was passed by the state Senate, 59-1, on April 29, with Sens. James Seward, R-Milford, and John J. Bonacic, R-New Hope, voting in favor of it. If enacted, the law would classify the theft of prescription blanks as grand larceny, a Class D felony in the fourth degree. Possession of a stolen prescription form would be included under the statute covering the receipt of stolen property, also a Class D felony. Possession of any blank prescription form would be a Class A misdemeanor.
The bill is now before the Assembly, where similar legislation died in the Code Committee two years ago.
Otsego County District Attorney John Muehl did not return several calls for comment.