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Ex-pharmacy tech accused of stealing painkillers, subbing other medications

| Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, 2:08 p.m.

A former pharmacy technician at Jefferson Regional Medical Center orchestrated a scheme to steal hundreds of potent painkillers intended for hospital patients and dispense look-alike pills to mask the thefts, prosecutors charge.

Cheryl L. Ashcraft, 43, of New Eagle in Washington County told Drug Enforcement Agency investigators that she consumed the painkiller oxycodone — sometimes up to 10 tablets a day — and other narcotics she stole between June and October from an automated hospital pharmacy drug dispensing unit. Authorities last week charged her with a felony drug count and one misdemeanor count each of reckless endangerment, theft and drug possession.

Ashcraft could not be reached for comment. A district judge released her on her own recognizance on Friday, and she faces a hearing on Jan. 30 before Pleasant Hills District Judge Pat A. Capolupo. It is unclear whether Ashcraft has a lawyer.

Investigators determined about 362 patients might have received non-narcotic medications as a result of the thefts instead of the pain medications their doctors prescribed.

The state Attorney General's Office says in a criminal complaint that Ashcraft replaced the painkillers with Methimazole, a medication intended to treat an overactive thyroid. On Nov. 14, 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, including the Attorney General's Office, the DEA and the state Department of Health.

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.

“It should be noted that it takes careful examination through amber-colored blister pack(s) to identify markings/discrepancies of tablets that appear to be the same shape and size and color of the substituted oxycodone product,” investigators wrote.

The thefts were brought to light when the daughter of a patient asked to see her mother's pain pill before a nurse gave it to her. She took a picture of it, found a photo online of what it was supposed to look like and informed the nurse that it was the wrong pill. Investigators did not identify the patient.

“Jefferson Regional is fully aware of the recent action that law enforcement has taken against the former employee, as we have been supportive of their investigation since we first reported the incident,” said Candy Williams, a spokeswoman at the hospital in Jefferson Hills. “While we have no additional comments on the former Jefferson Regional employee, we would like to assure all of our patients that their safety and the quality of the care they receive at our hospital has always been our top priority.”

Officials with Jefferson Regional have said they know of no patients who had adverse reactions or side effects because of the medication swap. Lawyer Brendan Lupetin said he represents several families who intend to sue the hospital for negligence. He said licensed pharmacists working at the hospital should have supervised Ashcraft more closely.

“Pain medications play a big role in the recovery of patients and to make sure they don't deteriorate,” Lupetin said. “Untreated, acute pain can cause a myriad of other conditions.”

Pharmacy technicians do not have to obtain a license or certification to work in Pennsylvania, according to state law. Pharmacists are required to supervise technicians.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or jboren@tribweb.com.

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