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Hearing is continued for Jefferson technician

Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 5:16 a.m.

A preliminary hearing was continued for a week for a former Jefferson Regional Medical Center pharmacy technician charged with switching other drugs for oxycodone.

Cheryl L. Ashcraft, 43, of New Eagle showed up on Wednesday at Magisterial District Judge Pat A. Capolupo's Pleasant Hills courtroom without an attorney.

She faces a felony charge of prohibited acts and misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person, prohibited acts-possession of oxycodone, and theft by unlawful taking.

Capolupo continued Ashcraft's hearing until Wednesday at 9 a.m. She remains free on her own recognizance.

Allegheny County assistant district attorney Evan Lowry is the prosecutor. The criminal complaint against Ashcraft was prepared by Andrew Sakmar, an agent for the state Attorney General's office.

Sakmar alleged that Ashcraft moved a quantity of oxycodone valued at between $50 and $200 sometime between June and October of last year.

The agent said Ashcraft “knowingly and intentionally acquired (the drug) by misrepresentation, fraud, forgery, deception or subterfuge.”

He also said Ashcraft's conduct may have placed Jefferson patients “in danger of death or serious bodily injury.”

Sakmar's complaint said that conduct took place when a Jefferson pharmacist assigned Ashcraft the job of repackaging tablets from bulk containers into “blister packs,” each containing one tablet.

The complaint reported how, on Oct. 22, 2012, the daughter of a patient discovered the pill being given to her parent was not a prescribed 5-milligram dose of oxycodone.

“The pharmacist identified the medication as Methimazole ... not oxycodone,” the complaint went on. “The pharmacist found other (blister packs) had been repackaged ... that did not contain the correct medication.”

A subsequent search by the Jefferson Regional director of pharmacy found that half of the blister packs labeled as oxycodone actually contained Methimazole, an antithyroid drug, or Ondansetron, a drug given to deal with nausea caused during radiation therapy.

On Oct. 24, Ashcraft was interviewed by Sakmar and federal Drug Enforcement Agency investigator Lewis Colosimo.

“Ashcraft initially denied any wrongdoing but ultimately told investigators that she had diverted and substituted other medications for narcotics,” according to Sakmar's filing. “Ashcraft stated that she had been taking the oxycodone for her own personal consumption/use, using up to 10 oxycodone tablets per day.”

Jefferson said on Nov. 14 that approximately 362 patients may have received substituted non-narcotic medications for the prescribed oxycodone.

That same day, the hospital announced that the then-unidentified pharmacy technician's position had been terminated.

Ashcraft was not identified until charges were filed on Jan. 3.

The hospital said “it is very unlikely that the substituted medications will cause any harm, or have any lasting effects.”

A Pittsburgh attorney representing 15 families plans to file civil action within the next two weeks in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

“Beyond the obvious issue of the negative effects that may have been caused by the ingestion of non-prescribed medications, there is a large amount of research explaining the negative implications of unrelieved acute pain,” Brendan B. Lupetin wrote on Dec. 30 on the Pittsburgh Injury Law Source blog.

Lupetin quoted a 1994 study published through the National Institute of Health and the American Journal of Hospital Pharmacy which said, “The body's response to acute pain can cause adverse physiological effects” and also noted problems that “untreated, acute pain can have on a patient.”

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967

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