A charge nurse in a hospital looks for morphine in a special locking medicine dispensing cabinet. Laws require that institutions that dispense opioids carefully track them. (PHOTO by Alyssa Schukar/The New York Times)

NEW: Georgia bill to ease opioid access for dying patients awaits Kemp’s pen

More people could handle morphine under a bill that is awaiting Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature.

House Bill 374 would allow certified medication aides to administer liquid morphine to patients who are in hospice care in assisted-living communities. Right now, only nurses can.

Hospice patients are typically near the end of their lives, expecting to live six more months or less. That makes their care different. Hospice workers focus on making the patient comfortable, not on curing conditions or restoring the patient’s functions.

HB 374 grapples with a tough problem.

Advocates who testified for the bill said hospice patients had to wait in pain because there weren’t enough nurses to administer medication on time.

But opioids have become the center of a drug addiction crisis, and some health professionals have diverted drugs from patients for their own use or to sell.

It happens even at big institutions that are supposed to have sophisticated security controls. In 2016, Emory University Hospital Midtown fired two technicians over diversion of more than 1 million doses of drugs including hydrocodone, codeine and Xanax. Investigators estimated $20 million to $40 million worth of drugs went missing. Hourly employees drove high-end cars and were seen wheeling cardboard boxes of drugs down the street.

In another instance, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration exacted its largest hospital settlement ever, $4.1 million, from Effingham Health System. Investigators said the Georgia hospital wasn’t keeping adequate track of drugs and tens of thousands of oxycodone pills disappeared over more than four years. Then when the hospital suspected diversion, it didn’t report it in time.

Patient advocates said that under HB 374, assisted-living facilities would be required to keep track of the medications and not keep much on hand.

The bill does not apply to patients in personal care homes. Aides there could only administer the drug if a nurse was not on site.

A spokesman for Kemp said he is reviewing the legislation.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.