They’ve found it hidden in patients’ ears, and in the pages of a book.
Following the overdose death of a Saucier, Mississippi, Marine Corps veteran at the Brockton Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in March, U.S. Congressman Stephen Lynch said hospital administrators have assured him they’ve taken steps to improve security at the Belmont Street facility.
But, the drug that caused the incident, fentanyl, is so potent that lethal doses can be difficult to detect, he said.
The drug, a synthetic opioid many times more powerful than morphine and street heroin, has emerged as the driving factor in the majority of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts, showing up in three-quarters of all toxicology screenings, according to state data.
That is was able to find its way into a secure facility where patients are supposedly monitored around-the-clock and supervised when they leave their rooms reflects the depths to which the regional opioid addiction epidemic responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 state residents last year has grown.
The federal Drug Enforcement Agency has said just 2 or 3 milligrams of fentanyl — an amount equivalent to a few grains of salt — is enough to kill a person.
Hank Brandon Lee, a retired lance corporal and mortarman in the Marine Corps, traveled from his home in Mississippi to Boston during a black-out period brought on by severe post-traumatic stress disorder in February, according to VA records obtained by The Enterprise.
He was admitted to the Brockton campus’s psychiatric ward to undergo treatment, but was found unresponsive in early March. He was pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Medical Center, and his autopsy report later revealed the cause of death as acute fentanyl intoxication.
Exactly how Lee was able to acquire and consume the drug inside the ward is still unclear.
His wife, Jamie-Lee Hasted, recently told The Enterprise she has yet to receive any explanation as to how Lee was able to obtain the drug, and a VA Boston spokeswoman said the facility still doesn’t know.
An internal investigation was performed following the incident, but VA officials said it is protected from disclosure under federal law.
At the time of his death, Lee was under observation, with checks every 15 minutes, his medical records show.
Lynch, who previously served on the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, said VA hospitals are not prisons, and patients are not subjected to rigorous searches. Their property is search when they’re admitted, hospital staff said.
“There’s obviously respect for the veterans,” he said. “The amount of fentanyl that would have caused that overdose is smaller than an aspirin. We’ve had incidents in other facilities where they’re actually diabolical in terms of how they’re getting this stuff in.”
The Brockton facility is not the only treatment center in the area to experience similar problems, Lynch said.
He said he’s heard of incidents at other drug rehabilitation centers where patients have soaked droplets of the drug into the pages of a book, then tore pieces off and ate them once they were inside.
Since March, he said, the facility has modified its intake procedures and added extra safeguards in other areas.
“I do know they’ve modified their procedures for when someone comes in with a history of drug abuse,” he said.
Patients are no longer permitted to have visitors during their first three days at the facility, and additional security cameras have been added to the recreation room where patients have contact with each other.
He said cameras have also been added to oversee a fence alongside a yard used for recreation, where drugs could easily be passed through.
“It’s obviously a horrible tragedy, and I think the VA in Brockton has taken a number of steps to modify their procedures there,” he said. “The doctors and nurses are all professionals, and many of them are veterans themselves and they’re trying to do the right thing for our veterans. They could make more money at a private hospital, but they do this because they want to serve our vets.”
Lee’s death is not the first time the Brockton VA has been under fire for patient care in recent years.
In 2014, an unidentified psychiatrist at the hospital filed whistleblower complaints with the Office of the Special Counsel alleging one patient had received inappropriate levels of medication for years and two others had been neglected.
The facility has also weathered an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.
Despite that, the hospital’s wait times for patients seeking care are among the best in the state, The Enterprise previously reported. The federal department’s patient backlog that lead to the death of at least one veteran and a related scandal was the focus of a national controversy in 2014.