Federal prosecutors in Western Washington say Tina Long, while employed as a nurse at Morton General Hospital, pilfered pain medication - specifically Dilaudid and morphine. The drugs were intended for those at Morton General using a patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) system, but the feds say Long would suck out the good stuff, and dilute the drugs with saline solution to cover her tracks. The alleged drug thefts happened over the course of a roughly five-month period, from February or March 2011, until Long was confronted in July of that year.
This afternoon Long will make a trip to Tacoma and the federal courthouse to be arraigned, answering to charges of tampering with consumer products and acquiring controlled substances by misrepresentation, fraud, and deception. Long's federal public defender declined comment on this story.
Despite the pending federal charges against her, Washington State Department of Health Public Information Officer Kate Lynch confirms that Long's Registered Nurse license is still valid in the state, last renewed in July of this year. Lynch says records show an investigation of Long was opened in July 2011 - the same month Long was confronted about her alleged pain medication thefts - but was closed without action in April 2012. Lynch could not provide information regarding why the investigation was closed, though she confirms information obtained during that investigation was provided to federal authorities. An email correspondence between Long and a state Department of Health investigator is cited in the federal complaint against her.
According to court documents filed in the case, Long first received her registered nurse license in October 2008 and soon began working as at Morton General. On July 2, 2011, while working the nightshift, investigators say a coworker discovered Long kneeling in front of what's called a Pyxis drug cabinet - where narcotic pain medication is stored, and which requires floor nurses to enter their names and passwords, or fingerprint, to gain entry. The coworker allegedly noticed Long accessing the PCA drawer, and, according to court documents, considered this suspicious because "at the time, there were no Morton General patients on PCA drugs."
A PCA system is one which allows patients to push a button to administer pain medication on an as-needed basis. Court documents describe the system at Morton General as battery-operated, containing Dilaudid and morphine kept in syringes, and delivering the drugs to patients through and IV tube. After being noticed by her coworker, court documents say Long logged out of the Pyxis computer system and left the medicine room.
Authorities say three days later Long was called into a meeting with her supervisors in which she admitted she'd been stealing pain medication from the Morton General PCA system - using a syringe to draw out morphine and Dilaudid and then making up the difference with saline solution. Prosecutors say Long also admitted to then putting the diluted vials back into the PCA system, causing an unknown number of patients at Morton General to receive questionable doses of pain medication.
A week after the meeting Long was fired from Morton General. The hospital had no comment for this story.
On Nov. 29, 2011, Kenneth Petroff, a special agent with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, interviewed Long at the Washington State Department of Health office in Olympia.
According to court documents citing Petroff's interview:
Prior to the interview, I told LONG that she was under no obligation to speak with me and she was free to leave at any time. LONG admitted to stealing Dilaudid and morphine from the Pyxis cabinet at Morton General from approximately February or March of 2011 until she was caught in July 2011. She said she would use a syringe to remove up to half (15 mg) of the drug from the PCA vial and replace the missing medicine with saline solution. She said she tried to ensure the blue plunger on the vial was in the exact same position after she replaced the medicine with saline as it had been before she touched the vial. LONG admitted that [a coworker] had caught her in the PCA drawer of the Pyxis cabinet during the weekend of July 2-3. Long said, by the time she was caught, she had probably "removed half (of the medicine) from every single vial in there." When I asked LONG what an FDA analysis of the tampered drugs might reveal, she said the tests would probably show the drugs were "most likely not full strength."
I asked LONG if any Morton General patients had been given diluted drugs and she replied, "I'm assuming so." LONG acknowledged that her actions put patients in jeopardy of not receiving pain relief. LONG could not provide specific names of patients who were put at risk due to her actions. She recalled a male patient who suffered from sciatica. I asked if there was a risk that patients might have received diluted medicine, and LONG said, "Of course."
Also according to court documents, on Dec. 19, 2011 Long sent an email to an investigator with the Department of Health, in which she discussed her history with addiction to pain medication and expressed remorse for the impact her actions had on patients being treated from pain. In the letter, Long allegedly wrote: "I started to access the PCA vials around March. At first I would think about it but not touch them. It wasn't long before I did remove some of the medication (a couple mg) and replaced it with Normal Saline. I did this in the medication room and used supplies that were in the room."
Investigators say that, along with possibly receiving pain medication that was too diluted to adequately treat their pain, patients at Morton General risked overdose by potentially receiving the diluted drugs followed by a full strength dosage - which could have resulted in "respiratory depression and possibly death."
While the allegations against Long at this point are just that - allegations - the problem of pain medication abuse by nurses and within the medical profession is not a new (or particularly rare) one. A press release from the Department of Health distributed Thursday, for example, listed five health care professionals who faced discipline for issues related to substance abuse.
In Washington, Lynch says the process for revoking or suspending the license of a nurse or other medical professional involves a complaint being made to the Department of Health, followed by an investigation being launched, and ultimately a decision being made by the state Nursing Commission. It does not take a criminal conviction for a nurse to lose his or her license. Lynch says there is no standard system in our state for law enforcement to alert the Health Department when a criminal investigation is launched or charges are filed.
You can find the full complaint filed in federal court against Long on the following page.