Four nurses, all of them affiliated with a Derby pain clinic, were responsible for nearly all of the state’s 2014 Medicare spending on the powerful opioid painkiller Subsys, which is at the center of a kickback probe. New Medicare data for 2014 show the four nurses, all who worked at the Comprehensive Pain and Headache Treatment Center of Derby, were responsible for 279 claims for Subsys, at a cost of $2.3 million. The highest prescriber was Heather Alfonso, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) formerly employed by the clinic who is awaiting sentencing on charges she took kickbacks from Arizona-based Insys Therapeutics for dispensing Subsys to patients. The new data is the first indication that the propensity to prescribe Subsys extended beyond Alfonso, to other clinic staff. None of the other three nurses has been implicated in an ongoing federal probe of Insys’ marketing of Subsys that resulted in the criminal charges against Alfonso.
In surgery, when something goes wrong, minutes become hours. Minutes are the focus of a lawsuit filed by the family of a 29-year-old Seymour nurse who died in February 2015 after undergoing minor elective sinus surgery at the North Haven Surgery Center. The suit alleges that the center waited as long as 29 minutes to call an ambulance after Katherine O’Donnell’s blood pressure and pulse fell to critical levels on the operating table – and that doctors continued to proceed with surgery, even as their efforts to resuscitate her failed. The case raises questions about how well equipped freestanding surgical centers are to handle emergencies, and what sanctions they face for alleged lapses in care. The lawsuit alleges that the center and Fairfield Anesthesia Associates, LLC, which handled anesthesia in the case, failed to properly respond by stopping the surgery immediately and calling a “Code Blue” emergency when O’Donnell’s blood pressure and oxygen levels plummeted.
A Derby nurse who admitted taking kickbacks from a drug company that makes the powerful painkiller Subsys was pressured by sales representatives to increase her prescribing “so that the Subsys numbers would also increase,” according to court documents. In a hearing transcript recently made public, federal prosecutors charged that Heather Alfonso “continued to increase her prescribing of Subsys and to find more patients for whom she could prescribe the drugs” in exchange for a series of $1,000 kickbacks, totaling $83,000, from the company, Insys Therapeutics. Although the potent narcotic is approved only for cancer patients, some of the patients given Subsys by Alfonso “did not have a cancer diagnosis,” which would have meant that Medicare and private insurers would have refused to pay claims, federal prosecutors said. But “prior authorizations” submitted on behalf of patients falsely represented that they had cancer, misleading insurers into paying for the drug. It is not clear in the testimony who was involved in submitting the false authorizations to Medicare and insurers.
The company alleged to have paid kickbacks to a Derby nurse in exchange for her prescribing of a potent pain medication has agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a case brought by the state of Oregon, which accused the firm of deceptive marketing and kickback payments involving the same drug. In a notice of unlawful trade practices filed against the Arizona-based drug maker Insys, the Oregon attorney general’s office charged that the company used an “unconscionable tactic by making payments to doctors that you intended to be a kickback to incentivize the doctor to prescribe Subsys.” The attorney general also charged Insys with using “unconscionable, false and deceptive sales tactics” designed to increase the “off-label” use of Subsys, which is approved only to treat breakthrough cancer pain. The case in Oregon comes as Connecticut nurse practitioner Heather Alfonso, formerly with the Comprehensive Pain and Headache Treatment Center in Derby, awaits sentencing on charges she received $83,000 in kickbacks from Insys from 2013 to 2015. In pleading guilty, Alfonso, 42, admitted that the money she was paid for attending “dinner programs” as a speaker — many of them sham dinners, with just an Insys sales representative or her friends or co-workers — influenced her prescribing of the drug, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Connecticut. The charge of receipt of kickbacks in relation to a federal healthcare program carries a maximum term of imprisonment of five years and a fine of up to $250,000.
The state has barred practitioners at a Derby pain clinic, including a high-prescribing nurse, from participating in the Medicaid program because of improprieties in treatment and oversight. Documents from the Department of Social Services (DSS) show the physician heading the clinic, Dr. Mark Thimineur, and four nurses and assistants were notified in July that their participation in the Connecticut Medical Assistance Program, which includes Medicaid, is being terminated on Aug. 30. Those terminations came after Heather Alfonso, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) at the privately run Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, was removed from the Medicaid program in May, DSS officials said. Alfonso was identified in a February story by C-HIT as among the top 10 prescribers nationally of the most potent controlled substances in Medicare’s drug program in 2012 — Schedule II drugs, which have a high potential for addiction and abuse.
The medical director of a pain clinic in Derby was reprimanded and fined $7,500 on Tuesday by the state Medical Examining Board for writing prescriptions for patients based on assessments of their appearance or behavior conducted by unlicensed medical assistants. Dr. Mark Thimineur, medical director of the privately run Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, LLC, housed at Griffin Hospital, signed a consent order on June 1 agreeing to the punishment. In the order, he did not contest the findings by the board and the state Department of Public Health. The consent order states that from 2011 to the present, Thimineur failed to meet the standard of care when treating one or more patients for chronic pain. It said he wrote prescriptions for patients based on assessments by unlicensed medical assistants of the patients’ physical appearance, behavior, pain levels or lab test results.
Ten Connecticut prescribers, including a Derby nurse practitioner who is under investigation by the state, were responsible for more than 22 percent of the state’s Medicare spending on potent narcotics in 2013, new federal data show. More than 4,300 Connecticut clinicians, mostly physicians, wrote Medicare prescriptions for oxycodone, morphine and other Schedule II drugs, which have a high potential for abuse and addiction, at a total cost of $40 million. But a handful of those providers accounted for the largest share of those prescriptions, an analysis of the data show. Topping the list, in both the number of prescriptions and cost, was Heather Alfonso, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) at the Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, LLC, in Derby, who wrote out 8,523 prescriptions, at a cost of $2.7 million. Statewide, the average number of prescriptions per clinician was 104, and no other prescriber had more than 5,000 Schedule II claims. The average cost per prescriber was $9,138; the next closest individual cost was $1.8 million.
A Derby nurse practitioner whose prolific prescribing of potent narcotics was the subject of a February story by C-HIT has surrendered her state and federal licenses to prescribe controlled substances and is the subject of an “open investigation” by the state health department, officials said Monday. Heather Alfonso, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) at the Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, LLC, in Derby, surrendered her controlled substance registration after a recent probe by the Drug Control Division of the Department of Consumer Protection, a spokeswoman for the department confirmed. “The controlled substance registration of this provider has been turned in,” said the spokeswoman, Claudette Carveth. She said the agency had no further comment. Meanwhile, William Gerrish, a spokesman for the Department of Public Health, said his agency has an ongoing investigation into Alfonso’s APRN license, which is separate from her prescribing registration.
A Derby nurse practitioner was among the top 10 prescribers nationally of the most potent controlled substances in Medicare’s drug program in 2012 – an anomaly in a state where Medicare records show nurse practitioners rarely prescribe such drugs, which have a high potential for abuse. Heather Alfonso, an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) at the Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, LLC, wrote out 8,705 prescriptions for opioids and other Schedule II drugs in 2012 – the most prolific prescriber among all Connecticut practitioners, including pain specialists and other physicians, according to Medicare data compiled by ProPublica. She wrote out more prescriptions for the opioid Exalgo than any other Medicare provider in the country, and was the seventh highest prescriber nationally of Oxycontin, writing out more than twice as many prescriptions for that narcotic as the next highest prescriber in Connecticut. She also was the 10th highest prescriber nationally of Avinza, a morphine product. There is no indication that Alfonso’s unusual prescribing frequency drew scrutiny from state or federal officials.