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Investigators Nab Nurses for Nicking Patients' Narcotics

Local Matters


Published November 21, 2006 at 10:43 p.m.

VERMONT - Last week, the attorney general's office announced two new cases of registered nurses being accused of stealing drugs from their patients. Both cases are the result of a stepped-up effort by investigators in the state's Medicaid Fraud and Residential Abuse Unit (MFRAU) to crack down on impaired and/or drug-addicted caregivers and the illegal diversion of drugs by health-care professionals in Vermont.

The first case involved a registered nurse at Retreat Healthcare (formerly known as the Brattleboro Retreat). Denise Robin, 55, pleaded guilty in Windham District Court last week to "abusing a vulnerable adult" after she was caught stealing her patient's pain medication. The crime, a felony, left her patient in distress for at least an hour.

Robin, who now lives in Connecticut, was sentenced to six months to a year in jail. In lieu of serving time, she agreed to pay restitution to the facility, to perform community service, and to undergo drug rehabilitation, according to the attorney general's office. In addition, Robin's nursing license was suspended, and she agreed not to re-enter the nursing profession in another state.

The second case concerned Karin Johnson, 60, a registered nurse who, until recently, worked at the Woodridge Nursing Home in Berlin. Johnson was arraigned last week in Washington County District Court on charges of "obtaining a regulated drug by deceit" and "making false statements," both felonies. Johnson pleaded innocent to both charges.

According to court records, suspicions about Johnson first arose in 2005, when Woodridge Director of Nursing Joan Potter began receiving "numerous complaints" about Johnson from other staff members. They pointed to her unusually high rate of narcotic administration and excess drug wasting, and to errors in her paperwork. However, administrators never found any evidence of illegal activity.

But on November 6, following up a September tip on the state police's hotline, MFRAU detectives confronted Johnson in the workplace. During the interview, Johnson allegedly became emotional and admitted to having "consistently diverted" excess liquid morphine from her patients since the death of her mother two years ago. She also admitted that she suffered from a long history of alcoholism and nicotine addiction, the detective's affidavit shows.

The attorney general's office will not comment directly on pending criminal matters. However, the two cases indicate the growing problem of drug theft by workers in Vermont's hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and home-health-care settings.

The scope of the problem was brought to light in October when Attorney General William Sorrell unveiled a new, 36-minute documentary entitled "Drug Diversion in Vermont: When Healing Hands Harm." ("Local Matters," Nov. 1, "Film Targets Caregivers Who Steal Patients' Meds.") About 450 copies of the film have been distributed to health-care facilities and law-enforcement agencies across the state.

Both Robin and Johnson were under investigation before the release of Sorrell's public-awareness film.