Grand jury indicts Colorado surgical tech accused of tampering with syringe

Authorities allege that a former surgical tech at Swedish Medical Center tampered with a syringe containing pain medication.

Story highlights

  • Federal prosecutors accuse Rocky Allen of acquiring fentanyl "by deception and subterfuge"
  • The case spurred a Colorado hospital to tell nearly 3,000 patients to get tested for hepatitis and HIV
  • Two Arizona hospitals where Allen earlier worked as a surgical tech also are offering tests

(CNN)A grand jury has indicted a former surgical tech whose alleged drug tampering spurred a Colorado hospital to warn thousands of patients that they could have been exposed to hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV.

Rocky Allen, 28, was indicted on charges of tampering with a consumer product and obtaining a controlled substance by deceit, federal officials announced Tuesday.
The indictment accuses Allen, a former employee of Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colorado, of tampering with a syringe containing pain medication there and knowingly acquiring the medication "by deception and subterfuge."
    Allen did so, officials allege, "with reckless disregard for the risk that another person will be placed in danger of bodily injury, and under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to such risk."
    Earlier this month, Swedish Medical Center said a former employee could have exposed patients to hepatitis and HIV, but did not name the employee or detail how the patients could have been put at risk. The employee, officials said, could have stolen narcotic pain medication intended for patients.
    The hospital said about 2,900 patients should get tested for the viruses, adding that it had no evidence of any patient exposure but wanted to be cautious.
    Investigators haven't released details about what allegedly transpired, but have said a criminal investigation into Allen's conduct is ongoing.
    He was arrested Tuesday and is set to be arraigned on Friday. His federal public defender did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
    According to state regulators, Allen allegedly removed a syringe containing the pain medication fentanyl from an anesthesia cart and replaced it with another labeled syringe "in the beginning stages of a surgical procedure" on January 22. Prosecutors say the replacement syringe contained another substance.
    Allen's urine later tested positive for fentanyl, regulators said in an order suspending his license last month.

    Lawyer: Two people have tested positive

    Now an attorney says two of his clients have tested positive for hepatitis B.
    Jim Avery says he's representing 14 people who are among the former surgery patients the hospital said should get tested. Some of them are still awaiting their results and have been having nightmares, he said. At least two have tested positive for hepatitis B, said Avery, who's considering taking legal action against the hospital.
    Hospital officials declined to comment. A spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told CNN affiliate KMGH that officials are not releasing details about whether patients have tested positive for the viruses at this time.
    "CDPHE is not releasing information about lab results, either positive or negative, related to the Swedish Medical Center... at least until completion of our investigation -- likely weeks to months from now," spokesman Mark Salley said, according to KMGH.
    In a statement about the recommended testing earlier this month, the head of the hospital apologized.
    "We deeply regret that one of our former employees may have put patients at risk, and are sorry for any uncertainty or anxiety this may cause," Richard A. Hammett, Swedish Medical Center's president and CEO, said at the time. "Please know our first concern is the health, care, safety and privacy of our patients and we are working diligently to look after the well-being of the patients who may have been affected by the wrongful actions of this individual."

    Arizona hospitals also offer testing

    Since the Colorado hospital's announcement, two hospitals in Arizona where Allen once worked have also said they are offering free hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV testing to patients who had surgery while he worked there.
    HonorHealth John C. Lincoln Medical Center in Phoenix said it's offering testing to 97 patients and Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale said it would offer free testing to patients who underwent surgery there from May 19-July 2, 2014.
    Both hospitals said they believe the risk is low that patients contracted the viruses, and that they are recommending testing out of an abundance of caution.
    "It is important to note that the situation at our facility is different than the one in Colorado, and at this time, we have no indication that there was harm to patients," the Phoenix hospital said. "However, because of the Colorado case, and in an abundance of safety, we are offering free hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV testing to any patient who had a surgery in which he served as a surgical technician."
    Banner Thunderbird's CEO apologized for the anxiety patients are facing.
    "This situation has saddened us and we are determined to do all we can to help," CEO Deb Krmpotic said in a written statement posted on the medical center's website.
    In 2009, a surgical technician at another Colorado hospital infected 19 patients with hepatitis C after she injected herself with syringes that held their pain medication, then replaced the pain medication in their syringes with saline. Kristen Diane Parker pleaded guilty to a number of federal charges and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.