- Associated Press - Thursday, July 7, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance has agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a U.S. Justice Department investigation over how a nurse was able to divert more than 96,000 oxycodone pills from an onsite pharmacy. But the organization insists it did nothing wrong and was simply looking to move on.

From 2011 through 2013, the long-time nurse engaged in a complex scheme in which she fabricated prescriptions, had physicians sign them, and then altered them to increase the potency and quantity of the pills provided. She picked up the prescriptions at the pharmacy, supposedly as a favor to the patients.

The nurse killed herself after her actions came to light.

Federal prosecutors said pharmacists should have questioned the prescriptions, because the high doses and high quantities could have harmed patients with low tolerance for opiates - an allegation the alliance disputed.

“In our efforts to combat unlawful uses of prescription drugs we depend on the vigilance of pharmacists to closely monitor and enforce the controlled system of distribution,” Helen J. Brunner, the first assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, said in a written statement. “This case reflects the Justice Department’s commitment to use all of the enforcement tools at our disposal to ensure that highly-abused substances are provided to patients under the supervision of their doctors and not leaked to the illicit drug trade.”

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance is a coalition that includes doctors and researchers from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Children’s and University of Washington Medicine. In the settlement Thursday, the organization did not admit misconduct, but it agreed to make sure pharmacists take reasonable steps to validate prescriptions.

The organization said in a written statement it disagrees with the government’s findings, but it settled the allegations to avoid the delay, uncertainty and expense of litigation.

The scheme came to light in 2013, when a former patient was injured on the job and prescribed pain medication, prosecutors said. The state Department of Labor and Industries denied a claim from the patient because the state Prescription Monitoring Program indicated the patient was already receiving pain medication from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

The patient disputed that, and Labor and Industries workers alerted the cancer care center. The center investigated, discovered the nurse’s fraud, fired her, and alerted state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The Seattle Cancer Care Alliance said it also immediately to steps to avoid a repeat.

“During the course of our own investigation, the SCCA reached out to national experts, who advised us that the employee’s scheme was the most sophisticated they had ever seen and would likely have gone undetected in any cancer treatment center,” the center said. “They also indicated that the SCCA and its staff and physicians acted appropriately, and that the SCCA delivered care in a manner consistent with oncology team practices across the country.”

It remains unclear what happened to the diverted oxycodone, the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance said.

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