Justice Department Announces Settlement Agreement with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance Over Pharmacy Control Failures
WASHINGTON - The Department of Justice announced today that it has reached a settlement with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) relating to losses of more than 96,000 pills of oxycodone between 2011 and 2013. SCCA self-reported the diversions after discovering that a nurse employed at the cancer care center had used falsified and altered prescriptions to divert oxycodone from SCCA’s on-site pharmacy. The nurse conducted the scheme by drafting prescriptions for patients who were formerly receiving care at the center, obtaining physician signatures on those prescriptions, and then altering the prescriptions to reflect higher quantities and doses before transmitting them to the on-site pharmacy to be filled. The nurse would then pick up the controlled substances from the pharmacy under the guise that she was doing so as a service to the patient. Once her scheme was discovered, SCCA terminated the nurse’s employment. She subsequently took her own life.
“In our efforts to combat unlawful uses of prescription drugs we depend on the vigilance of pharmacists to closely monitor and enforce the controlled system of distribution,” said First Assistant, Helen J. Brunner. “This case reflects the Justice Department’s commitment to use all of the enforcement tools at our disposal to ensure that highly-abused substances are provided to patients under the supervision of their doctors and not leaked to the illicit drug trade.”
The investigation by the Department of Justice, in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration, determined that SCCA’s pharmacists violated the Controlled Substances Act when they dispensed controlled substances to the nurse who was conducting the fraud. Specifically, DOJ found that that the pharmacists were not acting in the “usual course of their professional practice” when they failed to take steps to verify that the high-dose, high-quantity painkillers “prescribed” were appropriate for the patients purportedly receiving them, based upon each patient’s prior prescription history. In fact, many of the former patients whose identities were used in the scheme were “opiate naïve.” Had these individuals actually received and taken the high-quantity, high-dose oxycodone filled in their names, they could have been harmed as a result.
The scheme carried out by the nurse was first uncovered in 2013, when a former patient at SCCA was injured on the job and was given a legitimate prescription for pain medication. Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries denied the claim because the state Prescription Monitoring Program indicated the patient was already receiving high strength pain medication from SCCA. When the patient disputed receipt of such medications, workers with L&I alerted SCCA, which launched the internal investigation and uncovered the fraud. Since its discovery, SCCA has notified all the affected patients about the fraud.
Under the settlement reached July 7, 2016, SCCA admits no law violation, wrongdoing or misconduct but agreed, among other things to: (1) require its pharmacists to consult with the prescriber, or take other reasonable steps, to confirm the prescription’s appropriateness and veracity whenever there are signs that a prescription for a controlled substance is not appropriate for the patient to whom it is prescribed based upon the patient’s prior prescription history; (2) add an entry regarding the nurse’s fraud in the SCCA prescription and clinic records for each of the patients whose identities were used for the false prescriptions; and (3) pay the United States $250,000.
The Drug Enforcement Administration monitors pharmacy prescribing practices to ensure compliance with federal law. Pharmacies found in violation face escalating penalties up to the revocation of their DEA Registration number which allows them to write prescriptions for controlled substances.
The case was litigated by Assistant U.S. Attorney Christina Fogg in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington.