An Ohio hospital says a physician ordered potentially fatal doses of pain medication for at least 27 near-death patients whose families had requested that life-saving measures be halted.
The Mount Carmel Health System said it fired the doctor and reported the findings of its internal investigation to authorities.
“We apologize for this tragedy, and we’re truly sorry for the additional grief this may cause these families,” system CEO Ed Lamb said.
A lawsuit was filed this week by lawyer Gerry Leeseberg against the hospital, a pharmacist, a nurse and a physician identified as Dr. William Husel. The suit alleges they intentionally administered a lethal dose of the narcotic painkiller fentanyl to Janet Kavanaugh, who died on December 11, 2017 at the age of 79.
The “grossly inappropriate dose was either ordered negligently and not properly reviewed, or was intentionally prescribed by Defendant Husel for the purposes of hastening the termination of Janet Kavanaugh’s life,” the lawsuit says.
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A second lawsuit alleges Bonnie Austin, 64, was killed negligently or intentionally in September when she was given fentanyl and a powerful sedative ordered by a doctor who said she was brain-dead.
Lamb said 20 staffers were removed from patient care duties pending further investigation. That includes some staff pharmacists and nurses responsible for administering the medication, he said. He added that new protocols were being put in place to monitor increases in drug dosages.
Lamb said the investigation began after an employee raised concerns.
“While these actions have brought shock and hurt to our organization, this will not define us,” Lamb said. “We will learn from this and will do better, because our patients and their families deserve nothing less.”
Leeseberg said an important component of the case is that multiple people were involved.
“The pharmacist has an obligation to question an order, and the nurse has an obligation to question the order as well,” Leeseberg said. “All of those safeguards were overridden or ignored. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Columbus Police said their Cold Case Unit Homicide Unit has been investigating the deaths. Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien confirmed that his office has met with doctors, hospital executives and attorneys and that an investigation is underway.
USA TODAY was unable to reach Husel for comment. Records show the State Medical Board has never taken disciplinary action against him. It’s unclear whether that board ever received a complaint or conducted an investigation about him, as such records are confidential under Ohio law, and outcomes are made public only if the board takes formal action.
Five states – California, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Colorado – allow physician-assisted deaths, and 20 have considered but not passed legislation, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. However, Joe Carrese, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, said administering lethal quantities of drugs to unwitting patients would not meet the definition of physician-assisted death.
“In this case, if that was the intent, this was essentially euthanasia, which is not legal anywhere in the United States and not at all the same as physician-assisted death,” Carrese said.
Contributing: The Associated Press