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. …