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BILLINGS – The number of Montana nurses caught stealing drugs is underreported, the narcotics bureau chief for the state Division of Criminal Investigation says.

Mark Long said that’s because employers typically make an arrangement where the nurses just leave rather than notifying authorities when a nurse is caught stealing controlled substances.

“It’s a very honorable profession chock full of good employees,” said Long. “But any group is going to have some bad apples. If you have any medical professional diverting drugs, particularly if it’s for an addiction, you have a problem.”

Officials with the state Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees the Board of Nursing, said focusing on rehabilitation rather than prosecution prevents impaired nurses from going undetected and possibly harming patients.

“Alternative programs for nurses with substance abuse disorders are essential,” Anjeanette Lindle, an attorney for the state Department of Labor, told The Billings Gazette in an e-mail. “Without such a program, nurses needing treatment may go into hiding in order to protect their licenses and their livelihood, thus creating an even greater public safety concern.”

A review by the newspaper of files of 255 registered nurses and licensed practical nurses sanctioned by the board in the last five years found about a third involved diverting narcotic medications.

The disciplined nurses represent less than 2 percent of all licensed nurses in the state.

The newspaper found that most of the sanctioned nurses took drugs for their own use. Those included one in an outpatient surgery center who replaced the anesthetic in syringes with saline, and another nurse who substituted breath mints for painkillers multiple times.

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One nurse was caught stealing medications from patients to sell to friends, and another stole painkillers and sold them to patients.

None of the four nurses was fired, instead being sent to the Nurses Assistance Program, a substance abuse monitoring program.

“I know of no other profession exempt from criminal prosecution when they steal drugs,” said Glacier County Attorney Larry Epstein.

Cynthia Haney is senior policy fellow for the American Nurses Association.

“We have someone who provides a valuable service to patients,” Haney said. “Particularly in Montana where you have a provider shortage, if there’s any way to return that person to safe practice, that would be in the interest of the community as well as the individual practitioner.”

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