Metro-East News

FBI investigating local theft of powerful painkiller fentanyl

The FBI is among law enforcement agencies investigating the theft of a portion of a Belleville hospital’s supply of a powerful painkiller.

The investigation into what Memorial previously said was an “unauthorized tampering” of its supply of the potent narcotic fentanyl it distributes to ambulances in the metro-east has been ongoing since at least June. That’s when a Memorial-based regulator who oversees the region’s ambulance services for the state ordered all the ambulance services that have the drug to return it to the hospital.

“The investigation involves multiple law enforcement agencies including the FBI,” Memorial Hospital spokeswoman Anne Thomure said.

The regulator, Southwestern Illinois EMS System Medical Director Dr. Savoy Brummer, also ordered all EMS services in the region that use the drug to compile reports documenting every time the drug was administered from May 2013 to May 2015.

Thomure said investigators are using those reports to determine whether fentanyl given to patients came from vials that had been “diverted.”

Officials have declined to give details on the nature of the investigation or what prompted it.

“Diverted vials were sampled and tested for impurities and sterility and were proven to be sterile and free from bacteria,” Thomure said. “Infectious disease specialists determined that there was no significant risk to patients.”

The Illinois Department of Public Health, which by state law authorizes regional EMS systems to create and follow their own policies, learned of the investigation on Oct. 23.

At this time, IDPH is monitoring the investigation regarding fentanyl diversion. IDPH is encouraging all EMS Systems to review their narcotic policies and to conduct quality assurance studies, such as monitoring patients who have received narcotics in order to identify if the drug is working as it should

IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold

“At this time, IDPH is monitoring the investigation regarding fentanyl diversion,” IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said. “IDPH is encouraging all EMS systems to review their narcotic policies and to conduct quality-assurance studies, such as monitoring patients who have received narcotics in order to identify if the drug is working as it should.”

There are 11 regional EMS systems in Illinois.

Arnold said when the Southwestern Illinois EMS System notified IDPH of its investigation, it also said the investigation resulted in changes to the system’s policy on narcotics in May. She said the system also notified IDPH of changes to its narcotics policy in October 2014 and August 2015.

Thomure wasn’t immediately available to describe the policy changes.

While Illinois’ regional EMS systems create and follow their own rules, they’re licensed by the Illinois Department of Public Health, which has the power to disipline EMTs, paramedics and entire ambulance providers if they violate the state’s EMS laws.

Because state law allows regional EMS systems to make and follow their own rules, Arnold said IDPH isn’t directly involved in the local investigation.

“However, if IDPH feels the system is not adequately investigating, IDPH can investigate in conjunction with the system, or if it involves system staff, IDPH could conduct its own investigation,” she said.

IDPH licenses EMTs, paramedics and ambulance service providers and has the authority to discipline them if they violate the state’s EMS code.

It remains unclear whether the theft of the drug occurred at Memorial or within the ambulance services which get their fentanyl supplies from the hospital. It’s also unclear how many EMS services in the metro-east had fentanyl that had been tampered with.

Thomure said Memorial is “cooperating with the ongoing investigation.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration last year issued a nationwide alert about fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and as much as 50 times more powerful than heroin. The agency said fentanyl is being used to increase the potency of heroin.

Tobias Wall: 618-239-2501, @Wall_BND

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