Drug Tampering by Nurses Reveals Problems in Regulation and Hiring

A Kansas nurse accused of tampering with nursing home medications pleaded guilty to one count of adulteration of a drug and one count of consumer product tampering in a Topeka federal court at the end of November. Melanie Morrison admitted to diluting morphine solutions at the nursing home in Salina where she worked. The nursing director noticed that the caps had been removed from several vials of medication, and that the rubber covers had puncture marks indicative of a hypodermic needle. Morrison would mix sodium chloride into morphine sulfate, which reduced the painkiller’s effectiveness. She would also outright replace morphine vials with sodium chloride and take the morphine home. This put patients at risk, as some elderly patients can react very badly to sodium chloride solution. She admitted that she acted with “reckless disregard and extreme indifference” to the risks to the patients in her care.

Morrison’s plea deal could result in a prison sentence of up to three years. She has also surrendered her nursing license and agreed never to work in health care again. Prosecutors are asking that she go into a treatment program for drug addiction. If she completes the program, she could qualify for early release from prison.

The Kansas City Star notes that Morrison’s case illustrates an alarming problem with Kansas’ nursing regulations. According to news reports, Morrison had previously lost a job at a Wichita hospital for stealing the painkiller Percocet. Within months, she had a new job at a nursing facility with full access to the drug supply. The Star notes other similar cases. A nurse convicted of stealing patients’ drugs at an Emporia nursing home later found a job at a home in Topeka. There, she was caught diluting a patient’s painkiller with tap water. A nurse who diluted morphine solutions for several patients in Halstead had a previous conviction for prescription forgery.

The problem, according to the Star, is that Kansas law does not require nursing homes to conduct background checks on nurses and other medical professionals. The state nursing board obtained authority to conduct background checks on new nursing licensees, but not renewals, a mere three years ago. Nursing homes and hospitals therefore have no effective means if learning of any criminal or drug abuse history of their nurses. With regard to employees who regularly handle powerful narcotic medications, with patients in delicate medical condition, this would be useful information for nursing home administrators to have.

The Maryland Legislature passed a bill in 2006 requiring Criminal History Records Checks for all applications for new nursing licenses after January 2, 2007. Background checks are also now required for renewal of certain licenses. Licenses expiring during one month of each year for a twelve-year period that began with June 2010 will require a background check for renewal. The majority of renewals of licenses granted before 2007 will not require background checks, but Maryland’s law is a step in the right direction for patient safety.

The Maryland nursing home lawyers at Lebowitz and Mzhen represent people who have been injured due to abuse or neglect by staff members. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Hospice Nurse Charged for Elder Abuse and Narcotic Theft, Maryland Nursing Home Lawyer Blog, August 24, 2011
Nursing Home Worker Steals Resident’s Pain Patch for Pleasure, Maryland Nursing Home Lawyer Blog, June 30, 2011
Nurse Indicted for Chemical Restraint Leading to Nursing Home Resident’s Death, Maryland Nursing Home Lawyer Blog, June 28, 2010

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