For more than four years, hundreds of thousands of powerful, highly controlled prescription narcotics disappeared from Sacred Heart Medical Center’s outpatient pharmacy and no one noticed. Between January and March alone, 745 hydrocodone pills were stolen each day, a police report says.
Three months ago, hospital officials went to Spokane police to investigate and the magnitude of the theft became apparent.
Police say pharmacy technician Paul Martsin, 25, is suspected of stealing 261,756 hydrocodone pills since December 2009 with a street value exceeding $1 million.
The volume of pain pills stolen is unprecedented in the health care field in Washington and rarely seen by police.
“That’s just incredible,” said Tim Fuller, a pharmacy consultant for the Washington’s board of pharmacy.
The investigation continues, but police believe there is no way Martsin was dealing the pills by himself.
“Looking at this as a pure math problem, you’d have to have people helping you distribute,” said Spokane Police Sgt. John Roys. “There’s got to be some other connections to this. The number of pills and the amount of time in a day, I’m not sure you’d be able get any sleep for several days on end.”
Martsin, who has no prior criminal record, was released on his own recognizance after spending one night in jail. He faces charges for possession of hydrocodone and codeine with intent to deliver. Other charges could be forthcoming, police say.
Police began an investigation in May. A surveillance camera placed in the pharmacy recorded Martsin putting the pills and cough syrup in his backpack earlier this week.
After Martsin’s arrest Wednesday, detectives obtained search warrants for his backpack, a storage unit and his apartment, and found about 7,000 hydrocodone pills plus 190 empty, 500-count pill bottles, police said. Martsin also had about $13,000 in cash that police think was the result of drug sales.
Fuller, of the board of pharmacy, explained how the missing pills might go unnoticed.
Pharmacies are required to log the drugs purchased each day and drugs prescribed to patients, but there is nothing that necessitates the health care workers compare the records each day.
“Pharmacies often reconcile drugs, but there’s no requirement,” Fuller said.
He said the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, upon whose requirements state law is based, is mostly concerned with “chain of control,” or logging the movement of drugs from one person to another. Pharmacies do have to keep an inventory of drugs that’s representative of the number of patients it serves.
Sacred Heart spokesman Joe Robb would not give specifics about the volume of drugs prescribed through the hospital’s outpatient pharmacy.
But Fuller said hospital pharmacies typically dispense anywhere from 100 narcotic pain pills a day to a few thousand, depending on location.
Given the level of theft, the volume must have been pretty high at Sacred Heart’s pharmacy, he said.
In addition to hydrocodone, police found envelopes and bottles of other narcotic pills in Martsin’s home. They also seized five firearms and several items believed to be purchased with drug money, including a 1999 Mercedes Benz and a 2013 Chevy Equinox, a new flat-screen television and tens of thousands of cards from Magic: The Gathering trading card game.
Police seized the items and froze Martsin’s bank accounts.
Police don’t think Martsin was an addict. “He didn’t have the paraphernalia in the house to indicate he was a user,” Roys said.
Martsin worked at the pharmacy with his girlfriend, police said. “I think her close involvement with him, puts her into the category of suspect,” Roys said. “We need to investigate her role.”
Meanwhile, Robb said precautions to prevent similar pharmacy thefts have been put in place.
“We have already completed a thorough review of our internal process and have made significant control improvements that we feel will prevent this from happening again,” the hospital spokesman said. “And, going forward we will continue to evaluate to ensure we have best-in-class processes, policies and practices.”