Hospice Drug Diversion: What You Should Know

February 5, 2020

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Diverted Hospice Drugs - Hospice Drug Diversion

Most of the addiction crisis in the nation today has to do with prescription drugs such as painkillers.  For instance, more than 21.0 million people over the age of 12 need substance use treatment, according to SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration).  With the easy availability of prescription drugs comes a health crisis of unprecedented proportions today.  Amid this issue is the problem of hospice drug diversion.

Today’s opioid epidemic has prompted a variety of prevention techniques that could save lives. Across the US, advocates work tirelessly to educate the public about the dangers of drugs.  Adolescents, as well as adults, could benefit from this information when it comes to drug safety. Learning how to properly dispose of unused drugs and how to keep needed drugs out of the hands of teens or addicts is a good way to begin.

Sinking to New Lows to Get High: Stealing Hospice Drugs

People who seek to abuse addictive substances have little trouble finding what they need.  Almost every home has a variety of painkillers, muscle relaxers, sedatives, antidepressants, or others.  This is especially the case in homes where family members care for ailing grandparents. Someone who wants to get high can find a virtual mini-pharmacy in grandpa’s medicine cabinet.

The CDC reports that about 46% of teens get their drugs from a relative or friend. These drugs are often available in the person’s home.  Shockingly, many drug abusers steal drugs from a hospice patient who is receiving end-of-life care at home, leaving the patient to spend their last days or hours in terrible pain.

Addicts Aren't the Only Ones Stealing from Hospice Patients

Of course, dying people often need high doses of opioids.  Now, amid the overdose death crisis, some states have laws that allow hospice staff permission to destroy those leftover pills after their patient passes away.  However, that does nothing to keep a person from stealing a hospice patient’s drugs before death occurs. Unfortunately, not only are teen or adult family members snitching the substances, some long-term care hospice patients sell the drugs themselves.  Furthermore, many personal care aides steal from their patients.

Hospice drug diversion is not easily controlled because many of the thefts go unreported by patients or family members.

The most commonly prescribed opioids for hospice patients include:

  • Liquid morphine
  • Morphine pills
  • Hydrocodone with acetaminophen (Vicodin, Norco)
  • Oxycodone immediate release tables
  • Fentanyl patches

Consequently, these same drugs cause tens of thousands of overdose deaths yearly.   In fact, more than 91 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose. Furthermore, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50.

Hospice Drug Diversion for Keeping Hospice Drugs Out of the Wrong Hands

In most states, the DEA encourages hospice staff to help families destroy leftover medicines.  But, hospice staff can’t destroy the meds themselves unless state law permits.  Legally, the family owns the pills and they are not required to destroy them.

Hospices can help by using precautions such as counting pills, providing locked boxes for the medicines, and limiting the volume of each drug delivery.  Also, patients can be given random drug tests. Some hospices have begun screening families of patients for history of drug abuse or addiction, but this can have adverse consequences for the patient.  For instance, a positive drug test on a family member could restrict access to the painkillers a patient needs.

Hospice drug diversion is an ongoing problem that has sparked the need for new, improved guidelines. Serving more 1.6 million patients a year, hospice programs are dedicated to making the changes necessary to prevent the drugs from getting into the wrong hands.


  • nhpco.org – Standards of Practice for Hospice Programs
  • samhsa.govKey Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States
  • ncbi.nlm.nih.govTeen Prescription Drug Abuse

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