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Samaritan reacts to news of four nurses arrested on recent drug charges

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Samaritan Medical Center officials said an auditing system that recently identified four emergency room nurses who allegedly were stealing narcotics worked exactly as it was designed.

SMC officials held a press conference Monday afternoon to discuss the recent arrests of the nurses and the systems that are in place to uncover and investigate such incidents. The nurses are accused of dispensing narcotics without proper documentation or authorization. In all four cases, an auditing system revealed that narcotics were being dispensed improperly, police said.

Brian J. O’Hearn, SMC vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer, said a May 16 audit detected “significant” discrepancies in prescription drugs improperly dispensed by the four nurses during the previous month, so SMC officials began an internal investigation before contacting the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. The Department of Health and state police also were involved in the investigations.

Samaritan officials reiterated their belief that the incidents were unrelated. They also stressed that they dealt with the cases immediately and that they did not know whether the nurses were reselling the controlled substances or using them personally.

The four nurses were fired, and all face charges of selling and possessing a prescription controlled substance under a state public health law and first-degree falsifying business records, a class E felony.

Since the arrests, Samaritan officials have held meetings with staff to discuss what happened and how employees can identify nurses who may have addiction problems, so they can be given help.

Drug diversion, the theft or illegal use of prescription medication, is on the rise nationally and is occurring more often with medical professionals who are in need of help.

“Four is a bit rare, but diversion is certainly a nationwide problem,” Mr. O’Hearn said.

Hospital staff was particularly upset that registered nurse Carson F. Fanning, 32, Richland, became the fourth Samaritan nurse to be charged with illegally dispensing medication and fired within a week, because his case involved “one of our own,” hospital spokeswoman Krista A. Kittle said.

The other three arrests involved traveling nurses, who worked for different agencies and were brought to Samaritan to work in the Emergency Department on a temporary basis. They are Patricia A. Shea, 52, of 1030 Arsenal St.; Heather L. Graham, 41, Ithaca, and Dawn R. Harrison, 46, Dolgeville. Ms. Graham and Ms. Harrison were arrested June 4, with the other arrests by state police occurring separately.

With Ms. Harrison and Ms. Graham, hospital staff became suspicious when the caps of three prescription medicine vials had been removed and then glued back on.

Hospital officials said they did not detect any conspiracy among the four ER nurses, although Ms. Graham and Ms. Harrison worked the same shifts.

They also were together during the “wasting” and “witness” of an opened vial of a narcotic, a process in which a staff member witnesses the other one throwing away the unused amount of the medication, Ms. Kittle said.

Traveling nurses work under contract to help ease nursing shortages. To be hired, they go through duplicate interview processes, background checks and drug tests with both the nursing agency and the hospital, Ms. Kittle said. One of the traveling nurses had worked at Samaritan for more than a year, she said.

Before the arrests, an abnormally high number of 11 “travelers” was working in the ER, while it was experiencing some vacancies and a new management team coming on board, Ms. Kittle said.

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