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Former ER Nurse Sentenced to 60 Months in Prison for Fraudulently Obtaining, Tampering with Patient Drugs

OCI BadgeDepartment of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of Utah

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, January 13, 2020

Through Drug Diversion, Seven (Known) Patients Were Infected with Hepatitis-C

SALT LAKE CITY – Elet Neilson, age 53, of Layton, a former emergency room nurse who admitted to tampering with controlled substances intended for patients and diverting the drugs for her own use, will serve 60 months in federal prison.  U.S. District Judge Dee Benson imposed the sentence Monday afternoon in Salt Lake City.

As a result of the tampering and diversion, Neilson admitted infecting seven (known) patients with Hepatitis-C 2B. Hepatitis C, which is a viral disease, is primarily transmitted through blood exposure.  There are different genotpyes. One variant, Hepatitis-C 2B, makes up only 8 to 10 percent of all Hepatitis C found in humans in Utah, according to the indictment filed in the case. 

Federal prosecutors had asked Judge Benson to impose a sentence of 90 months.  “This is more than a mistake.  Punishment and general deterrence should be the driving force in fashioning a sentence today,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Pead said. Judge Benson’s sentence of 60 months was three months below the sentencing guideline range in the case of 63-78 months.  The court found she abused a position of trust in imposing the sentence.

“As sad as addiction may be, it is not without victims. This case illustrates addiction’s wake of tragedy like few others,” U.S. Attorney for Utah John W. Huber said today. “At least seven unwitting and innocent victims were in vulnerable positions when the nurse defendant recklessly exposed them to, and infected them with a serious and stigmatizing disease. These convictions represent knowing and intentional conduct that went well beyond an unwise decision made amidst addiction.”

“Patients deserve to have confidence that they are not only receiving the proper treatment from those entrusted with providing their medical care, but also that they are not being placed at an increased risk of harm,” said Special Agent in Charge Charles L. Grinstead, of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations, Kansas City Field Office.  “We will continue to protect the public health and bring to justice health care professionals who take advantage of their unique position and compromise their patients’ health and comfort by tampering with needed drugs.”

Between July 2013 and November 2014, Neilson was employed at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah. As a nurse, Neilson had access to controlled substances, including medication intended for patients in the emergency room. As a part of a plea agreement reached in September 2019, Neilson admitted that on multiple occasions, she tampered with hydromorphone and morphine, diverting the drugs for her own use.

According to the plea agreement, Neilson admitted that by tampering, diverting, and using the drugs, she acted with reckless disregard for the risk to other people, including placing people in danger of death or bodily injury, and did so under circumstances that manifested extreme indifference to that risk.
 
In late 2014, according to charges filed in the case, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and the Utah Department of Health began an investigation into a cluster of Hepatitis C 2B diagnoses in the Ogden region, which eventually focused on patients seen in the emergency room at McKay-Dee Hospital while Neilson was working there. The investigation ultimately determined that seven patients, each of whom were given intravenous opioid pain management drugs handled by Neilson before or during their administration, were infected with not only the same genotype of Hepatitis-C 2B as Neilson, but the same sub-genotype. 

“Neilson, a medical professional, diverted drugs for her own use, and as a result infected her patients.  For that she will rightly be punished,” said Curt L. Muller, Special Agent in Charge of the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Kansas City Region. “Along with our law enforcement partners, protecting patients is our top priority.”

“When professionals in positions of trust, abuse that trust by engaging in the diversion of controlled substances, it is extremely disappointing. Anyone who deliberately diverts and tampers with controlled substances causing harm to patients, has violated their duties as a professional and will be held accountable,” said Acting Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Salt Lake City District Office Miguel Chino.  “The charge and plea agreement in this case are the result of DEA’s continued commitment to work with our law enforcement partners and hold accountable those who participate in illegally diverting controlled substances in our communities. It also is a testament to law enforcement’s commitment to fight the illegal diversion of these drugs.”

"Medical professionals are entrusted with the care of others.  Elet Neilson betrayed that trust and in turn, put her patients' health and lives at risk," said Special Agent in Charge Paul Haertel of the FBI's Salt Lake City Field Office.  "The FBI would like to thank our law enforcement partners for their dedication and persistence in a case that should serve as an example that such reckless behavior within our nation's health care system will be aggressively investigated and prosecuted."
 
“The mission of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU) in the Utah Attorney General’s Office is to protect vulnerable individuals from harm.  The victims in this case went to the hospital for treatment, trusting that they would be safe and cared for.  Instead, because of the defendant’s actions, the victims came out of the hospital with life-changing diseases.  The MFCU is proud to have been part of a team that brought this nurse to justice and gave a voice to each victim,” Kaye Lynn Wootton, MFCU Director, said today.

Neilson will be on supervised release for two years when she finishes her federal prison sentence.  Special conditions of the supervised release include drug/alcohol and mental health treatment. She must pay a $400 special assessment fee.  The court ordered Neilson to self-surrender to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to begin serving the sentence no later than March 2 at noon.  BOP will designate a prison in the coming weeks.

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