Sept. 13--Sixteen people on Wednesday sued Jefferson Hospital for negligence in connection with a former employee who stole painkillers intended for hospital patients and gave the patients look-alike pills not intended to treat pain.
Instead of receiving oxycodone for pain control, the patients received either an anti-nausea medication or Methimazole, a thyroid medication. The substituted pills looked similar to oxycodone.
Some patients were accident victims or recovering from surgery, according to the attorneys who filed the lawsuit. Other patients were in later stages of cancer or amputees.
"The descriptions of suffering in speaking with these patients and their families are heartbreaking," said Downtown attorney Jennifer Webster, one of the lawyers representing the patients. "These people were in agony, begging for relief. Little did they know that it was because their pain pills were being stolen."
The case broke open after the November 2012 arrest of former Jefferson pharmacy technician Cheryl L. Ashcraft, 47, of New Eagle in Washington County. She subsequently pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge, telling investigators that she took large amounts of oxycodone and other narcotics from an automated hospital pharmacy drug dispensing unit.
Court records show Ashcraft was sentenced in June 2013 to six months to a year in prison, followed by three years of probation. She admitted to stealing the narcotics during a four-month period in 2012.
The thefts were brought to light when the daughter of a patient asked to see her mother's pain pill before a nurse administered it. She took a picture of the pill, found an online photo of what hydrocodone looks like and then informed the nurse that her mother had been given the wrong pill. Investigators did not identify the patient and she is not part of the current lawsuit.
"This makes this all the worse," Webster said Wednesday. "The hospital did not have policies in place to discover this. If she hadn't found out, who knows how long this would have gone on? We also don't know whether the thefts were limited to the period that Ms. Aschraft admitted to."
Dan Laurent, a spokesman for Allegheny Health Network, which owns Jefferson, said Wednesday that the hospital took proper action.
"In 2012, (what was then known as) Jefferson Regional Medical Center notified a number of patients that they may not have received their prescribed pain medication due to the illegal actions of a pharmacy tech employed by the hospital," Laurent said in a statement. "Immediately upon discovering this issue, Jefferson responded swiftly and appropriately in alerting authorities, terminating the employee in question and notifying potentially affected patients."
The lawsuit, filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, also seeks punitive damages.
"You can't be a trusted institution and not enforce policies and procedures," Webster said. "They had some policies and procedures in place but they weren't enforced or at least not properly enforced all the time."
Investigators determined about 362 patients might have received non-narcotic medications instead of the pain medications their doctors prescribed as a result of the thefts.
On Nov. 14, 2012, hospital officials notified patients of the problem and announced, without identifying Ashcraft, that they fired her and reported the theft to state and federal agencies.
Authorities said about half of the drug packages that were supposed to contain oxycodone -- known as blister packs -- actually contained Methimazole or Ondansetron, which reduces nausea and vomiting for cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Discrepancies found in pharmacy logs carried Ashcraft's initials.
Webster said a failed attempt to have the lawsuit certified as a class action led to a delay in its filing. The lawsuit is filed on behalf of patients or their survivors.
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.
(c)2017 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)
Visit The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) at www.triblive.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.