Saturday, August 17, 2013

Hospital Tech Pleads Guilty in Hepatitis C Outbreak

The Concord (N.H.) Monitor, Aug. 16, 2013

One of the most chilling episodes in the whole awful saga of the traveling hospital worker who pleaded guilty to a horrific drug-stealing scheme came outside the federal courthouse in Concord. There, one of David Kwiatkowski's victims told reporters that he remembered the technician from his stay at Exeter Hospital — and remembered that something was distinctly wrong with him.

The man described Kwiatkowski as sweaty and his eyes red and glassy. He figured he was either drunk or high on marijuana. That alone would have been cause for alarm — from patients and co-workers alike. Incredibly the truth was far worse.

Kwiatkowski moved regularly from job to job, often working in cardiac catheterization labs. As he has now admitted, he regularly stole syringes full of narcotics and replaced them with syringes he had already used — refilled with saline solution. That, too, would have been cause enough for alarm, for Kwiatkowski's patients were denied the painkillers they needed. But that wasn't the end of the story either.

Those old syringes were contaminated with hepatitis C, which Kwiatkowski had acquired during years of drug abuse. As a result, nearly four dozen patients in New Hampshire, Kansas and Maryland were infected with a potentially fatal virus.

Kwiatkowski will spend between 30 and 40 years behind bars, a sentence federal prosecutor John Kacavas described as the best deal available under the law. "I can't give (the victims) their health back. I can't give them compensation. ... What we can give them is some measure of justice within the criminal justice system. And that is a term of years of incarceration. I understand their frustration and I understand victims who want nothing less than a life sentence or the death penalty. I get that.

But our system does not allow for that." There may be one measure of hope — not for these patients, alas, but for the safety of future patients.

Pending at the State House is legislation intended to prevent similar drug-addicted workers from carrying such schemes from one unwitting hospital to another.

The bill would create a state board to oversee the licenses of medical technicians and a registry of the status of those licenses. If a hospital technician's license was rescinded here, it would be public knowledge, checkable by any future employer. The information would be available on a national database of health care worker licenses.

The rules for medical technicians vary from state to state. Some require certain subsets to require licenses; New Hampshire is one of many states that don't require any licensing. Clearly, licensing and registration here is an important first step.

Despite the fashionable political talk about burdensome government regulation, this is an area where less is not better. Of course, a New Hampshire registry would raise red flags about only those medical technicians who had gotten into trouble in New Hampshire.

Advocates here hope that it might eventually lead to a national registry, so that abusers like Kwiatkowski couldn't easily slip from one state to another. A national registry for health care workers is a worthy cause for members of New Hampshire's congressional delegation. New Hampshire brought this tragic problem to the nation's attention. The state should now lead the way in helping to prevent it in the future.

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