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Number of patient deaths connected to Asante investigation may grow

The total number of patients thought to have died in connection with drug diversion in Medford remains unverified. But two lawyers say they've heard from dozens of additional potential victims and families.
A picture of Rogue Regional Medical Center in 2007. At the time it was known as Rogue Valley Medical Center. | BY NICKNELSON/ENGLISH WIKIPEDIA VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
March 14, 2024

Little more than two months after reports surfaced that Asante Health staff were suspected of swapping fentanyl with tap water, causing patients to get bacterial infections and die, lawyers told The Lund Report they're investigating more than 90 cases of suspected infection.

The figure is not verified. It represent people or family members who think their infection may have been connected with alleged drug diversion at the hospital. No official account of the number of people affected has been issued, and no one has been arrested or charged in connection with the suspected drug thefts.

But the accounts of two lawyers investigating the situation show the extent to which the situation at  Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford remains unknown.

News broke in December that police were investigating allegations that a nurse at the hospital had allegedly replaced the powerful synthetic opioid in patients’ IV bags with non-sterile tap water, causing multiple patient deaths. The hospital had reportedly contacted multiple patients or their families to tell them of the alleged connection.

Now, lawyers are interviewing patients or their family members and combing through thousands of pages of medical records in preparation of potential lawsuits against Asante.  And they say the number of potential victims keeps climbing.

David deVilleneuve, a Medford lawyer, told The Lund Report that he’s agreed to take on 14 cases of infections allegedly resulting from fentanyl theft, and is evaluating roughly 50 more. Of his current clients, 7 family members were told by the hospital or by police that the death of their relative is suspected to be connected to drug diversion. He says there's reason to believe three other fatalities were connected as well. On top of that, he's still investigating more than two dozen cases of reported patient fatalities to determine what evidence there is.

Justin Idiart, a Central Point lawyer who filed the first wrongful death suit against Asante, told The Lund Report that he has agreed to take on 11 additional cases of infection thought to be connected with drug diversion, and is considering 17 more. Between the two categories, a total of 11 cases involved patients who died, he said. 

Both lawyers say that as they research the situation they are encountering questions over what safeguards were in place to protect patients.

The evidence regarding drug diversion at Asante points to “giant red flags being waved all over the place, ” deVilleneuve said.

“What kind of protocols did (Asante) have in place to prevent the diversion of fentanyl from happening?” Idiart said. “ It’s a known problem throughout the country. That’s information that my clients want to know. Then, of course, they want to be compensated for what they’ve had to go through.”

Asante did not respond to a request for comment from The Lund Report. But in the past, a spokesperson has said that Asante was “distressed to learn of this issue” and was working closely with law enforcement after reporting it. 

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert told The Lund Report that police have not submitted any case to her office yet and she doesn’t know when they will. 

Medford Police spokesman Lt. Geoff Kirkpatrick referred The Lund Report to a statement issued by police in February that investigators are still reviewing medical records and other documents. 

Looking for patterns

Idiart was the first to sue Asante with a $11.5 million lawsuit last month on behalf of the estate of Horace Earl Wilson, who died from a bacterial infection called staphylococcus epidermidis while receiving treatment at the hospital. 

Wilson’s fentanyl drip was replaced with tap water, leading to an untreatable infection of the bacteria that caused his death, the suit claimed. The suit alleged that a specific nurse was responsible for the drug diversion. She has denied wrongdoing, has not been arrested and has not been linked to any other cases.

Idiart said that Wilson’s family members raised concerns that he was in pain while receiving care at the hospital, but providers responded, “No, that’s just a reflex. He’s not feeling anything because he’s on medication.”

He said he’s heard similar reports from other alleged victims.

The attorneys are working independently, but they both said they suspect the alleged drug diversion occurred roughly between late 2021 through 2023, when Asante reported an increase in infections to federal and state health authorities. Both have hired doctors and nurses as experts to evaluate medical records for evidence. 

“That’s the benefit of us having a large number of cases,” deVilleneuve said.  “We’re going to be able to see a pattern and that pattern can help us spot maybe particular individuals who worked at the hospital.” 

The lawyers said that lawsuits against Asante will seek answers on how extensive alleged drug diversion at the hospital was and why management didn’t stop it. 

Idiart and deVilleneuve said they received a wave of phone calls from potential clients after Asante began informing patients they were likely victims of drug diversion. 

DeVilleneuve said that in recent weeks Asante began another round of phone calls to more affected patients, resulting in more people calling his office. 

“Is there going to be a third round of phone calls?” he said. “I don’t know. Is this current round of phone calls gonna last for another week or so? Those are things I just don’t know.”

Many calls, he said, came from people who initially were told by Asante or Medford police that they weren’t considered victims of the drug diversion. However, Asante or police later contacted some of them and said they were victims, he said. 

“I’m concerned that a lot of people were told that they weren’t victims, and maybe they just stopped worrying about it and inquiring and maybe they didn’t get another phone call from Asante,” he said. “But they were in fact victims.”

DeVilleneuve said that Asante has told victims to get tested for HIV and hepatitis. But he said that some victims may be unaware because they’ve moved out of the Medford area and aren’t following the local news or have changed their number. 

The lawyers said they are concerned about the completeness of the records they’ve received from Asante. They said records have left out nursing notes, which describe critical details of each patients’ care. 

Neither had any insight into when prosecutors might bring charges. Because any criminal charges would require a much higher burden of proof, they said the challenge facing police is significant.

“I think that the police department is looking through thousands and thousands of pages of medical records with medical experts,” Idiart said.

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via @jakethomas2009.