BOULDER, Colo. –
A “misunderstanding” was responsible for Boulder Community Hospital cutting off communication with more than 300 patients who may have been affected by the theft of a powerful pain killer last year, a hospital spokesman said Thursday.
But there are still no plans for the hospital to alert patients about shocking new revelations in the case, including that the former nurse charged in the thefts admitted to prosecutors that he sometimes used dirty needles to replace the drug with saline or tap water.
Ashton Paul Daigle, 27, of Lafayette, faces more than 170 charges for allegedly stealing fentanyl — a strong narcotic prescription medication that can be addictive.
Federal authorities have since invited the more than 300 surgical patients who may have been affected by the thefts to view a videotaped interview with Daigle, in which he admits to sometimes using dirty needles to cover his crimes between Sept. 24 and Oct. 17 last year.
Hospital spokesman Rich Sheehan was among those who viewed the tape on Feb. 17, but told the Camera last week — after a patient spoke out about the interview — that the hospital was instructed not to talk to patients about it.
He said no notifications were sent to patients about the dirty-needle issue because the hospital’s “hands were tied,” and because the federal prosecutors didn’t share all the relevant information.
Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has since denied those claims.
“Categorically, we did not instruct (the hospital) not to speak with people about this,” Dorschner said. “We’re working with the hospital. It’s our commitment to communicate with all the victims.”
He emphasized that prosecutors are also working to tell patients about Daigle’s ongoing testing for HIV and Hepatitis — test that so far have come back negative.
On Thursday, Sheehan said he apparently mistook instructions to refer questions about the legal case to the U.S. Attorney as an order that the hospital should withhold all information from potentially affected patients.
“There was definitely a misunderstanding,” Sheehan said, adding that police sometimes ask the hospital not to release certain information. “It didn’t seem that out of the ordinary to me.”
Asked whether any hospital officials expressed concern that the U.S. Attorney’s Office would apparently forbid them from discussing health issues with patients, Sheehan responded that there was, but no one asked for clarity from federal prosecutors in the last month.
“It is something we will definitely talk about and see what we can learn,” he said.
Sheehan said the hospital began mailing out letters to all 300-plus patients on Wednesday. He declined to provide a copy of the letter on Thursday, or describe its content.
The letter doesn’t contain information about the dirty needles allegedly used in the thefts, he said, nor any other information from the taped interview with Daigle.
“We’re trying to formulate a communications plan to give people the information they need,” Sheehan said.
He said the hospital will also continue to provide free services for any of the affected patients who want to be tested for HIV, Hepatitis or other relevant diseases. He also said the acts of one former employee don’t “represent the whole hospital.”
“Every hospital employee whom I have talked with has been horrified and angered by this crime,” he said. “We have hundreds of other employees … doing the best they can.”
Maggie Chamberlin Holben, owner of the Absolutely Public Relations firm in Lakewood, has specialized in the field of medical public relations and marketing for more than 25 years and is a certified industry analyst.
She said that, in her experience, the Boulder hospital is likely facing a host of pressure stemming from the incident.
“Obviously there is a huge amount of liability in a situation like this, so PR people — who are really the voice of the top management — they are going to be very careful about what they say and what they do,” said Holben, who is not involved in the Boulder case.
She said if she was in the hospital spokesperson’s position, she would immediately work to get relevant information out to patients, and the public.
“It would be common sense if something that serious was going on that you would get with your CEO and your legal person and say, ‘woo hoo, this is potentially publicly embarrassing or a public health concern and we better figure out a response that is both in good conscience and legal.'”
She said hospitals in particular have a responsibility to be “as open as possible, and accurate.”
“Open communication and providing all of the proper awareness about concerns and threats … that’s pretty much standard fare,” Holben said. “Especially in matters that can scare people to death, like their health.”
Contact Camera Staff Writer Heath Urie at 303-473-1328 or email@example.com.