URI pharmacy professor among 14 indicted after 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy professor implicated in a compounding pharmacy scandal in Massachusetts has been relieved of her classroom duties as her case works its way through the courts, university officials said Wednesday.

The university provided Michelle Caetano Thomas, a clinical assistant professor of pharmacy, with “an alternative work assignment outside the classroom,” spokesperson David Lavallee said in an e-mail message. Lavallee declined to identify what Thomas’s new job entails, other than to say it came with her “full cooperation.”

Thomas has worked at URI since August 2012 and earns $97,850.

“The university will continue to monitor this matter and assess the need for additional action if that becomes necessary,” Lavallee said.

Thomas, 31, of 14 Royal Court, Cumberland, was one of 14 people indicted last week in connection with a 2012 national fungal meningitis outbreak that left 64 people dead. Federal authorities say the drugs in question were produced at the New England Compounding Center, in Framingham, Mass., where Thomas worked as a pharmacist checking orders for shipment from March through August 2012, according to the indictment.

Thomas, who received a doctor of pharmacy at URI, is accused of defrauding the government by using fake patient names for prescription drugs that were then illegally shipped in bulk to Indiana and Nebraska. The phony names included L.L. Bean, Harry Potter, Mike Marker, and Carrol Sharpie, according to the indictment. She faces a count of aiding and abetting.

Thomas’s lawyer, Christopher L. Jefford, could not be reached immediately Wednesday.

Two other Rhode Islanders also face charges. Robert A. Ronzio, 40, of 30 Nipmuc Trail, North Providence, is charged with conspiracy to defraud the government for allegedly instructing the compounding center’s sales force to use fake patient names to cover up that the center was illegally manufacturing and distributing drugs in bulk without prescriptions, the indictment said. Ronzio worked in sales for the center beginning in 2010.

Ronzio’s lawyer, Frank A. Libby, Jr., could not be reached immediately for comment Wednesday.

Scott M. Connolly, 42, of 940 Quaker Lane, East Greenwich, is charged with racketeering, conspiracy and mail fraud related to the alleged scheme. Authorities accuse Connolly of illegally working as a pharmacist technician, with his employer’s knowledge, after voluntarily surrendering his pharmacy technician license due to a disciplinary matter.

The indictment says that Connolly prepared cardiac drugs without a license and that he concealed the work by using another defendant’s username and password when operating equipment.

Connolly’s lawyer, Raymond Sayeg Jr., could not be reached immediately for comment.

The center’s owner, Barry J. Cadden, and its supervisory pharmacist, Glenn A. Chin, who was in charge of the sterile room, face the most serious charges, 25 counts of second-degree murder for deaths in seven states. They are accused in the federal racketeering indictment of “acting in wanton and willful disregard of the likelihood” of death or great bodily harm. A former Rhode Islander, Cadden holds a degree from the URI College of Pharmacy. Lawyers for Cadden and Chin could not be reached.

Accusations in the lengthy indictments include that the center used expired ingredients in drugs, failed to properly sterilize drugs and neglected to test drugs to make sure they were sterile. Others who were named face charges such as fraud and interstate sale of adulterated drugs.

More than 750 people in 20 states were sickened — about half of them with a rare fungal form of meningitis, the rest with joint or spinal infections — and 64 died. The steroids given were for medical purposes, not for body building; most patients received the injections for back pain.

The Food and Drug Administration has cited numerous unsafe practices at the pharmacy. An FDA agent also said pharmacy technicians were instructed to falsify logs to show that rooms were properly cleaned when they were not.

The compounding pharmacy gave up its license and filed for bankruptcy after it was flooded with hundreds of lawsuits filed by victims and their families.

In reaction to the outbreak, Congress in 2013 increased federal oversight of so-called compounding pharmacies, which custom-mix medications in bulk and supply them directly to hospitals and doctors. Compounding pharmacies are not subject to the same tight regulations and federal oversight as retail pharmacies.

With wire reports

Source Article from http://www.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/content/20141224-uri-pharmacy-professor-among-14-indicted-after-2012-fungal-meningitis-outbreak.ece
URI pharmacy professor among 14 indicted after 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak
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