COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An intensive care doctor ordered “significantly excessive and potentially fatal” doses of pain medicine for at least 27 near-death patients in the past few years after families asked that lifesaving measures be stopped, an Ohio hospital system announced after being sued by a family alleging an improper dose of fentanyl actively hastened the death of one of those patients.
The Columbus-area Mount Carmel Health System acknowledged the doses were larger than needed to provide comfort for dying patients. That raises questions about whether there was intentional or possibly illegal use of the drugs to accelerate deaths.
The system said it has fired the doctor, reported findings of an internal investigation to authorities and removed 20 employees from patient care pending further investigation, including nurses who administered the medication as well as pharmacists.
Mount Carmel said the situation came to light because an employee reported a safety concern. The health system shared no information about what might have prompted employees to approve and administer the excessive dosages.
“Regardless of the reason the actions were taken, we take responsibility for the fact that the processes in place were not sufficient to prevent these actions from happening,” Mount Carmel President and CEO Ed Lamb said in a video statement . “We’re doing everything to understand how this happened and what we need to do to ensure that it never happens again.”
The attorney who brought the lawsuit said, in that case, either layers of safeguards repeatedly failed to flag a “grossly excessive” dosage of fentanyl, or the medical professionals intended to accelerate the death of the patient, 79-year-old Janet Kavanaugh.
“On balance, it’s hard to believe the former occurred rather than the latter. … This is not just a simple situation of an error,” lawyer Gerry Leeseberg said Tuesday.
The lawsuit was filed Monday in Franklin County against the health system, a pharmacist, a nurse and the doctor, whom it identifies as William Husel.
Case records listed no attorney yet to comment on Husel’s behalf. There is no public personal phone listing for him, and other numbers linked to him weren’t accepting calls Tuesday.
Husel’s case emerges amid a national debate over physician-assisted death. In such cases, physicians prescribe medications in life-ending amounts to terminally ill patients.
Five states — California, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Colorado — allow the practice, and 20 have considered but not passed legislation to do so, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. A Montana court also legalized it there, though there’s no regulatory framework in place. In Ohio, the practice remains illegal. A bill that would have allowed terminally ill, mentally competent patients to self-administer a prescription to end their lives failed to gain traction in the last legislative session.