State Watch

Texas medical center ordered to pay $4.5M for failing to properly guard dangerous medication

Pills in a box
U.S. Attorneys Office for Utah via AP, File

The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center has been ordered to pay $4.5 million for violating the Controlled Substances Act, the Justice Department (DOJ) said in a Tuesday release.

The settlement is the result of a three-year investigation into the medical center after two nurses overdosed on fentanyl and died in 2016 and 2018. Both nurses were found dead in hospital bathrooms.

These failures to properly handle controlled substances, including slacked record-keeping and reporting obligations, allowed staff to use them for illicit personal use, the DOJ wrote.

“For years prior to our investigation, U.T. Southwestern exhibited an almost shocking disregard for its obligations under the Controlled Substance Act, enabling some employees to steal and abuse prescription narcotics – including powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl,” said U.S. Attorney Chad Meacham. 

The settlement is the second-largest involving drug diversion in the nation and the largest in Texas.

“We felt that the serial compliance failures we uncovered warranted a multi-million-dollar penalty and a stringent corrective action plan,” Meacham added.

The medical center must now take further steps to safeguard its controlled substances, including putting employees through an addiction training program and allowing DEA agents to enter the premises at any time.

“The government’s rigorous investigation and resolution of this matter illustrates the government’s ongoing dedication to stem the prescription opioid crisis by ensuring that opioids are not diverted and abused,” the DOJ wrote.

The DEA earlier this year warned of an uptick in deaths in the U.S. due to counterfeit pills being laced with fentanyl. Ingestion of as little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl can result in death, the agency noted.

The U.T. Southwestern Medical Center said it engaged outside consultants to review its policies and practices following the two deaths.

“In response to, and in collaboration with the DOJ/DEA’s investigation, UTSW has continued to strengthen its handling of controlled substances, including the formation of a Controlled Substance Investigation Team and the installation of security cameras to deter diversion of these substances within its facilities,” said Russell Rian, director of communications at the medical center.

He added, “As a leading health care institution, we are committed to meeting all legal and ethical obligations in every aspect of our operations, and specifically to following best practices in opioid stewardship, consistent with our broad commitment to maintaining a safe clinical care and workplace environment.”

— Updated at 3:32 p.m.

Tags Controlled Substances Act Drugs Fentanyl Opioids Texas

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