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Legal Briefs: Pharmacist Pleads Guilty to Federal Charges, Federal Court Issues Restraining Order Against Pharmacy, and More

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March 01, 2021

latnerPharmacist Pleads Guilty to Federal Charges of Sabotaging COVID Vaccines

At a time when most of the country’s pharmacists are on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19, one pharmacist has pleaded guilty to tampering with over 500 doses of the coronavirus vaccine. The case made national headlines at the end of 2020, when the pharmacist, Steven Brandenburg of Wisconsin, admitted to removing a box of Moderna vaccine from Aurora Medical Center’s pharmacy refrigerator on December 24th and December 25th, knowing it would render the vaccine ineffective or less effective. Fifty-seven patients received doses of the mishandled vaccine before the pharmacist’s act was discovered. Brandenburg, a 46-year-old, had been a licensed pharmacist for 23 years. In late December 2020, the Food and Drug Administration, FBI, and the local police department began investigations which revealed that Brandenburg believed in conspiracy theories, including a wariness of vaccines, particularly the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Local police noted that the pharmacist told investigators that he believed the COVID-19 vaccine was not safe for people and could harm them and change their DNA. Brandenburg had made has beliefs about vaccines known to his co-workers for at least the previous two years, investigators found. In January 2021, Brandenburg was charged with a state misdemeanor, and two federal tampering charges.

In late January, Brandenburg agreed to plead guilty to the federal charges—two counts of attempted tampering with consumer products with reckless disregard for the risk that another person will be placed in danger of death or bodily injury. He has not yet been sentenced, but each charge carries a maximum ten-year prison sentence, as well as a fine.  “Pharmacists rank among some of the most trusted professionals,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Hughes, in a statement. “This individual used his special access to tamper with vials of the much-needed COVID-19 vaccine. The FBI takes allegations of consumer product tampering very seriously and will use all available resources to bring those to justice who intentionally put the public’s health at risk.”

Alaska Pharmacy Fined for Prescription Transaction that led to Patient’s Felony Drug Trial

In an extremely strange and unusual case, an Alaska pharmacy was fined at the end of 2020 by the state board of pharmacy over a prescription transaction that led to the felony drug trial of a patient in 2019.

The incident began on May 14, 2019, when a pharmacy patient, Michelle Hoyt, picked up her two prescriptions, as well as a third prescription of Adderall meant for someone else. [Later, there were two different stories about how this transpired. Hoyt alleged that the pharmacy employee put it in the bag. They employee (not a pharmacist) alleged the Hoyt tricked her into giving her the prescription.] When the legitimate patient called about picking up his Adderall prescription, he was told that someone else had picked it up. He had not given anyone else permission to do so but could not get the pharmacy to refill the prescription without filling out a police report, which he did on May 19.  Police investigated and saw a security video (with no audio) showing Hoyt picking up the Adderall with her prescriptions. The investigating officer went to Hoyt’s home and told her that she had picked up the man’s prescription. Hoyt showed the officer the bag, which still had her unopened medication and the other patient’s Adderall with all pills still in it. Hoyt was arrested and charged with felony drug charges. She lost her job in the billing department of a local hospital. The case went to trial, which lasted for a week. After deliberation, the jury acquitted Hoyt. At trial, it came out that the pharmacy employee never properly verified Hoyt’s information. Following the trial, outraged at what had happened to her, Hoyt filed a complaint with the state board of pharmacy. After an investigation, the pharmacy was forced to admit that its unlicensed pharmacy employee did not follow pharmacy procedure–specifically, she never asked for a date of birth or identification of Hoyt or the patient who was supposed to get the Adderall.  The Board of Pharmacy fined the pharmacy $3750. Hoyt has also filed a civil suit against the pharmacy, alleging malpractice.

This case is still in litigation.                   

Federal Court Issues Restraining Order Against Ohio Pharmacy and Two Pharmacists

An Ohio federal court has issued a temporary restraining order against a Toledo, Ohio pharmacy and two of its pharmacists—preventing the dispensing of opioids and other controlled substances, according to the Department of Justice. The complaint, against the pharmacy, its pharmacist owner and another pharmacist, alleges that over a period of several years opioids and other controlled substances were being dispensed by the defendants in violation of the Controlled Substances Act. In particular, the complaint notes that the defendants ignored red flags, obvious indications of drug-seeking behavior and drug diversion. The complaint alleges that the defendants failed to ensure the legitimacy of prescriptions before filling them. According to court documents, the prescriptions dispensed by the defendants often involved oxycodone, hydrocodone, oxymorphone, buprenorphine, and fentanyl, often in dangerous combinations with other prescription medications such as benzodiazepines and muscle relaxants. “Federal law requires pharmacists to ensure that the controlled substance prescriptions they fill are medically legitimate,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jennifer B. Dickey of the Justice Department's Civil Division in a statement. “The Department of Justice will continue to work with DEA and our law enforcement partners to combat the opioid crisis by holding accountable pharmacies that abandon their obligations.” The complaint seeks civil penalties as well as a permanent injunction against the defendants.

Ann W. Latner, JD, is a freelance writer and attorney based in New York. She was formerly Director of Periodicals at the American Pharmacists Association.

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