UT Southwestern just finalized one of the largest payouts related to the opioid epidemic in Texas. The hospital acknowledged it didn’t do enough to keep staff from accessing dangerous narcotics for personal use and will now pay $4.5 million in damages to the federal government.
Taking the Blame
Two nurses died of fentanyl overdoses at UT Southwestern in 2016 and 2018 respectively. The Drug Enforcement Agency says the hospital should’ve done more to prevent staff from accessing these substances and that their deaths could’ve been prevented.
Both nurses died of an overdose in a bathroom at UT’s Clements Hospital. Officials say in both cases the nurses were supposed to give the drug to a patient.
“We realize that drugs like fentanyl, when taken outside of medical supervision, are non-discriminatory,” said Eduardo Chavez, special agent in charge.
According to the settlement announced by the U.S. Attorney’s Northern District of Texas, one of the nurses in question overdosed on fentanyl at home while she was off duty. She later arrived at the hospital for treatment. However, instead of following up with the nurse or investigating the situation, they discharged her and cleared her to return to work with full access to the drugs at the hospital.
The hospital now says it failed to keep accurate records of its drugs. It also didn’t have surveillance cameras in place to track how they were being used.
After losing two nurses, the facility says it has hired more staff and implemented a robust security system to limit access to the drugs. It has also created a controlled substance investigation team.
“You have to ensure you’re maintaining strict controls,” Chavez said. “It is essentially a life or death decision that can be made in the blink of an eye.”
Authorities said this case shows that addiction and overdoses can happen to anyone, even healthcare professionals.
“The University of Texas Southwestern Hospital has an obligation to keep the highest standard of care for their patients. They also have an obligation of internal safeguards to keep controlled substances from being diverted,” said Chávez.
“Opioids, like fentanyl, do not discriminate in its addictive properties when diverted or taken outside the direction and supervision of medical professionals. In this time of record overdose deaths, health care systems must be held to compliance with the Controlled Substances Act. This is not only their legal responsibility, but also a matter of public trust and public safety. DEA Dallas pledges that we will tirelessly work with our law enforcement and regulatory partners to ensure these rules and regulations are followed to combat the opioid epidemic.”
The DEA added that the hospital has a history of lax oversight.
“For years prior to our investigation, UT 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.
“We felt that the serial compliance failures we uncovered warranted a multi-million-dollar penalty and a stringent corrective action plan,” he continued. “In this settlement agreement, we’re doing everything in our power to mitigate the threat of opioid diversion by outlining protocols above and beyond what’s required by law.”
The payout marks the conclusion of a three-year investigation. The DEA says UT Southwestern cooperated with officials throughout the process.