This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Administrators at Salt Lake City's veterans hospital believe a pharmacy supervisor bypassed security and created fictitious patients, some with famous names, as a way to hide the theft of more than 24,000 painkillers and 25 vials of testosterone.
The breach may not have happened, according to Department of Veterans Affairs leaders, if required software had been in place.
A criminal probe by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the V.A.'s Office of Inspector General has now entered its 12th month, and so far no one has been charged, though the main suspect no longer works at the Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center. His pharmacy license expired in September.
The theft case is laid out in incident reports, emails and memos obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, purportedly compiled by employees of the medical center who are upset by inaction in the case and the response of the medical center's leaders.
Beyond confirming the ongoing criminal investigation, federal law enforcement and officials at the medical center declined to comment Tuesday.
The suspect declined to comment through a lawyer.
On March 25, a pharmacy technician doing routine inventory noticed two extra bottles of a pill used to treat attention-deficit disorder. What at the time seemed to be an innocuous error led a pharmacy supervisor to discover an unknown user in the computer system who went by "0 0." This person wrote prescriptions for opioids and other painkillers for fake patients, including some with names such as Pete Rose and Ansel Adams, though with slight misspellings.
A detailed investigation found that over a five-year period, this user stole 25 vials of testosterone, 12,205 pills of controlled opioids and 12,335 noncontrolled tablets of tramadol, a painkiller that the government elevated to a controlled substance in 2014.
If sold on the street, the drugs would easily be worth more than $500,000, though a more accurate estimate isn't possible without more detail on the types of opioids and the milligrams per pill.
A Nov. 12 memo, written by Janet Murphy, the department's acting deputy under secretary for health for operations and management, suggested the thefts may have been thwarted if the medical center had implemented a required software program and reported the theft to the DEA promptly.
"The use of fictitious patient and provider names was possible due to the fact that Pharmacy Service was not using the mandated VistA controlled-substance package," Murphy wrote in the memo that outlines the "possible pharmacy diversion."
John Horton, the pharmacy director at the Salt Lake center, drafted a response with the help of Ben Nichols, a supervisor who helped identify the theft.
Their draft response says the Wahlen center stuck with private-sector software because it more easily communicated with other VA clinics in the area and that the increase in prescriptions would be "almost impossible" to fill "without modern dispensing equipment."
That said, Horton wrote that the center fully implemented VistA in reaction to the widespread theft.
Horton's memo said there was "minimal delay" in notifying the DEA once it was determined to be theft and he gave his opinion of the case.
"There is a preponderance of information that links the individual to the theft," he wrote on Dec. 29, pointing to computer records and security camera footage.
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