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Archive for Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Kansas nurse seeks probation for drug tampering

July 19, 2011, 2:42 p.m. Updated July 19, 2011, 3:39 p.m.

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— A Kansas nurse who diluted morphine-based solutions at a Halstead nursing home has asked a federal judge for leniency at her sentencing next week.

Deborah Riggs is scheduled to learn her punishment next Monday when she faces U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson in Topeka. The Goddard nurse pleaded guilty in December to one count each of consumer product tampering and adulteration of a drug.

Her attorney argued in a court filing that Riggs should receive probation instead of prison time.

"Ms. Riggs was very careful to only dilute overstock bottles of morphine sulfate, which were not destined to be administered to any patient," defense attorney Marilyn Trubey wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed Monday.

The defense also said Riggs is receiving methadone treatments for drug addiction, and argued the Bureau of Prisons is not equipped to treat her properly because she could not receive methadone within the prison and would be forced to quit cold turkey with devastating physical and emotional effects.

Trubey is seeking to have Riggs placed on probation with conditions that include entering a long-term treatment center.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway filed the government's sentencing recommendations under seal.

Riggs was charged in a 10-count indictment of diluting the morphine solutions intended for five patients at the Halstead Health and Rehabilitation Center. In return for her guilty plea on two counts, prosecutors agreed to drop the remaining charges.

She faces up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000 on the most serious tampering charge and up to three years in prison and a fine of not more than $10,000 on the adulteration count, although she is likely to receive far less under advisory federal sentencing guidelines.

The defense filing noted that a presentence report has enhanced her potential sentence because the patients at the nursing home where she worked were especially vulnerable and were endangered by Riggs' dilution of excess medication. The defense argued that enhancement is not supported by the facts or the law.

The probation office's presentence report also noted that due to the nursing home's internal controls for monitoring patient medications, no patients were harmed by Riggs' actions.

The Halstead Health and Rehabilitation Center told The Associated Press last year that no patients actually received the diluted medicine, which was taken from a seldom-used overflow area. Facility officials say they noticed broken seals on the bottles and sent the drugs for testing, then alerted federal authorities.

As narcotics charge nurse, Riggs had keys to the room and cabinet where patients' narcotic medications were stored. She acknowledged in her plea agreement that in December 2009 she diluted between 32 and 62 percent of some morphine sulfate solutions and replaced it with an unspecified substance.

Riggs has a history of convictions and nursing-license suspensions stemming from previous allegations of mismanaging or stealing controlled substances.

She was convicted in federal court in Wichita in 1998 of felony possession of a controlled substance by fraud. She was sentenced to two years of probation and four months of home detention. The Kansas Board of Nursing suspended her nursing license in February 2000 for forging prescriptions. Her suspension was stayed and she was conditionally allowed to continue practicing nursing.

Eight years later, the board suspended her license for drug abuse and for stealing narcotics while she was a nurse at a Wichita hospital and again stayed the suspension.

Trubey acknowledged in her filing that Riggs has been in treatment three times in the past. The lawyer said she expects prosecutors to stress Riggs' treatment history as they push for her to receive a prison sentence.

But Trubey said what's different this time is the mental health counseling Riggs also will be undergoing for abuse she suffered as a child.

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