Five months after the Navy sent him to work at a NATO hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Rocky Allen started stealing fentanyl.
Court records show in 2011 the then-Hospital Corpsman confessed to using a wire normally used to repair broken bones to help him break into lockers containing the drug that’s significantly more potent than heroin.
“I picked the lock on the lockers. I’d seen the providers – I knew that’s where they kept their narcotics,” Allen said during a Special Court Martial on May 17, 2011. “I wanted to take them personally and try to kind of escape being here in Kandahar."
The military reduced his rank and sentenced him to 90 days of confinement. Eventually, the military would shorten that to 30 days.
On Oct. 27, 2011, Lakewood Surgery Center in Washington state hired Allen to work as a surgical technician. By Dec. 1, 2011, Allen was gone. Staff suspected he had been trying to steal fentanyl, according to court records.
Over the course of the next four years, Allen managed to hopscotch from job to job in hospitals in Washington, California, and Arizona.
Each time, hospital staff either suspected Allen was stealing drugs or actually caught him in the act, according to court records, and each time, hospital staff quietly let him go.
At Northwest Hospital in Seattle in 2012, a housekeeper saw Allen taking a sharps container filled with used needles and medications into a bathroom.
At Scripps Green Hospital near San Diego, Allen pulled a syringe out of his sock when confronted by staff.
“When asked what [he] was planning on doing with the syringe of fentanyl, he said he was going to inject it,” according to a motion filed by federal prosecutors in Colorado.
John C. Lincoln Medical Center fired Allen in 2014 shortly after staff, according to court filings, found him passed out in a bathroom with an empty syringe by his side. Once revived, he “was not coherent and kept repeating the same things over and over.”
A drug test would reveal the presence of fentanyl, according to his termination letter.
Repeatedly, 9Wants to Know has asked that hospital why state or police investigators were never notified. A spokesperson said last week: “Because this matter is the subject of a lawsuit, we are not going to provide additional comment.”
Denver attorney James Avery represents patients who spent time at the hospitals where Allen worked.
“I think it’s outrageous it wasn’t reported to local law enforcement [in Arizona],” Avery said. “The way they protect their reputations is by denying they have a problem.”
A year after passing out in the Arizona hospital bathroom, Allen started working inside Swedish Medical Center in Colorado.
Months later, federal prosecutors say, hospital staff found fentanyl in his system after a staff member saw him in an unassigned operating room. They fired him and alerted 2,900 patients they needed to get tested for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV. Allen had previously admitted to other employers he had a yet-to-be-specified bloodborne pathogen.
Denver attorney Hollynd Hoskins represented some of the 18 patients infected with hepatitis C in 2008 when surgical technician Kristen Parker stole drugs from Rose Medical Center using used syringes.
HealthONE Colorado owns both Swedish and Rose.
“It’s devastating to be back here again after what happened at Rose Medical Center,” Hoskins said. “Clearly, hospitals are not doing enough to prevent this from occurring.”
In the medical world of multi-million dollar budgets and splashy promotional campaigns, Hoskins believes hospitals need to be less concerned about damaged reputations and more concerned about safety.
“Hospitals have a history of putting profits over patient safety, and unfortunately, hospitals have an incentive to bury this information,” Hoskins said.
The Colorado Hospital Association believes, at least when it comes to Allen’s employment in Colorado, Swedish Medical Center did the right thing by finally making the Allen case public.
Also, CHA President Steven Summer told 9Wants to Know the work of thousands of health care employees shouldn’t be overshadowed by the Allen case.
“There are tens of thousands of people who come to work every day in our hospitals who are committed to doing the right thing for their patients,” Summer said.
That is almost certainly the case, but a three-month-long 9Wants to Know investigation suggests a small percentage of employees continue to steal drugs from dozens of Colorado hospitals on an annual basis.
Cloud Database by Caspio
No hospital rivals Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center when it comes to a high rate of reported drug diversions, but the large number doesn’t seem to indicate a problem.
In fact, buried in the cumulative data from the Denver hospital is a story of a facility that makes a habit of reporting even seemingly insignificant cases.
For example, in July 2015, the hospital sent two drug diversion reports to the state. The two reports were for two missing tablets of oxycodone.
Both instances were almost certainly not the result of drug theft, but a result of an auditing system that managed to find seemingly small discrepancies with medication counts. Even still, the hospital notified the Denver Police Department in both cases.
The hospital was never required to do so, but it did it anyway.
Taunie Cable-Schuster knew something wasn’t right the moment an unfamiliar nurse came into her room at Parker Adventist Hospital.
The nurse, dressed in scrubs Cable-Schuster had never seen, made a beeline toward a pain pump that was delivering dilaudid, which is a highly addictive pain medication.
“She started to open it, and I said, ‘What are you doing?’” Cable-Schuster said. “I asked her three times to leave my room. Three times. I don’t think [the nurse] thought I was alert at all.”
Cable-Schuster buzzed her call button, and that’s when she said the nurse ducked out of the room. When other nurses arrived, Cable-Schuster was angry.
“I wanted them to call the police,” she said.
A state report obtained by 9Wants to Know shows staff found propofol in the nurse’s locker and fentanyl, dilaudid and morphine in her urine.
That nurse was subsequently fired but was given a reprieve by the hospital when a manager told an investigator with the Parker Police Department the hospital was no longer going to cooperate with the criminal investigation the following month.
“She advised they were going to handle it as a personal matter and could not discuss it further,” read a police report.
Then, the case was dropped.
“I don’t find that acceptable,” John Burke with the International Health Facility Diversion Association said. “A crime was committed.”
“We handled this case appropriately,” a spokesperson for Parker Adventist wrote in a statement sent to 9Wants to Know.
The hospital refused an offer for an on-camera interview.
The statement also said: “Parker Adventist Hospital cooperated, which is why there is a police report. We regret that we are unable to share further details around this case.”
Burke saw things differently, however.
“When you don’t [work with police], you send a patient on, and it’s a recipe for disaster,” Burke said.
The nurse who walked in Cable-Schuster’s room still has an active nursing license, although it has some unspecified restrictions attached to it.
9Wants to Know identified 56 employees accused of drug diverting since 2010. Nearly half of those employees still have their nursing licenses.
In addition, prosecutions are rare. Fewer than 20 percent of the diverters we identified were ever charged, and none received a prison or jail sentence.