Millions In Pills - Going Down The Drain

It's a ritual at nursing homes across the country that few outsiders ever witness.

Brand new medicine left over from patients whose prescriptions changed, who were discharged or passed away, is methodically punched out of unopened blister packs and, unbelievably, flushed down the toilet, CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

At St. Anthony's nursing home in New Orleans, the deed is done by a former ER nurse who was stunned when she first saw so many drugs going down the drain.

"I'd see people coming into the ER who are so ill because they haven't been able to afford their medicine. And here I was flushing what they needed down the toilet," said Pam Rowland, director of nursing at St. Anthony's. "It's discouraging."

Federal law has long required nursing homes to destroy leftover drugs to protect against misuse. Turns out the simplest way to get rid of them is flushing. And it's been common practice as long as chief pharmacist Jack Sassone can remember.

"We've got policy-makers that make these policies for us and we have to follow," said Sassone.

Nobody knows just how much perfectly good medicine is being flushed at nursing homes nationwide, but one study puts the value as high as $378 million a year.

And because most older Americans are covered by government prescription drug plans, you are paying for all that waste.

At another nursing home we agreed not to identify, a nurse is also busy punching pills. Each card represents a wasted prescription:

  • $100 worth of an Alzheimer's drug (Namenda).
  • A $260 prescription for a memory medicine (Exelon).
  • $300 worth of blood thinner (Plavix).

    The medicine also includes unopened syringes full of medicine to prevent blood clots. One box of ten syringes costs more than $1,000, but won't be helping anybody.

    The FDA, which regulates drug disposal, has decided against creating a national program to donate the drugs to the poor, and instead leaves it up to the states.

    Without federal direction, they haven't figured out how to do it effectively on a large scale.

    Back at St. Anthony's, the owner says he'd rather to see the medicine go to those who can't afford it. But there's no place in New Orleans that takes it.

    So the ritual continues. Even after all the pill punching we saw, there's more.

    "You'll notice, if you can see, I have four boxes," Rowland said.

    Boxes of valuable pills and your tax dollars … flushed.

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      Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.