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6/25/2001

Scam Artists Target Hospitals for Biotech Product

Kate Traynor

At least one thief who appears to be familiar with hospital procedures has concocted an unusual scheme to steal Amgen Inc.’s filgrastim product, Neupogen, from East Coast hospitals.

The thief or thieves take advantage of a common practice among nearby hospitals—the borrowing of medications when one institution runs out and needs the product right away. Typically in the swindle, a man claiming to work at a nearby institution telephones a hospital pharmacy and asks to borrow a few vials of Neupogen. The caller, who is said to be quite convincing, arranges to pick up the vials, and then both the caller and the product disappear.

Rick Karsten, a pharmacist and special agent at the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, described the scam as "pretty ingenious."

Karsten, who is investigating the problem, said four hospitals in the Atlanta area were approached by the thieves this past spring. "They were successful at two hospitals," he said.

But the thefts are not limited to the Atlanta area. Morrell C. Delcher, director of pharmacy services at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, found out about the problem from a nearby hospital that did not immediately realize it had been victimized.

"A hospital in town . . . contacted my buyer and asked when we were going to return a certain quantity of Neupogen," Delcher said. The hospital told Delcher’s buyer that Mercy had borrowed about $4000 worth of Neupogen.

The problem? "We didn’t borrow it," Delcher said.

He said Mercy keeps good records to document medication borrowing. "We have our own internal routine here . . . [which involves] a form being filled out indicating which medication was borrowed, who was it borrowed from, what was the quantity," Delcher said. "That way our buyer knows, ‘Hey, we owe Johns Hopkins x—make sure we pay them back shortly.’ "

David A. Kotzin, director of pharmacy services at Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC), said Mercy’s name was used during an unsuccessful Neupogen theft attempt in May.

Kotzin said a pharmacist working the evening shift at GBMC received a telephone call from a man claiming to be a temporary pharmacy technician at Mercy. The caller said that Mercy was "in dire need of Neupogen" and wanted to borrow 10 vials.

Coincidentally, the pharmacist who took the call had worked at Mercy before joining GBMC. Kotzin said this pharmacist began to doubt the legitimacy of the caller, who did not seem to know anyone on Mercy’s pharmacy staff. The pharmacist arranged for the medication transfer, but then followed GBMC’s policy of calling back the requesting pharmacy to confirm that the hospital had asked for the drug product.

As the pharmacist suspected, Mercy had not requested the medication. GBMC alerted local police, who arrested the man when he came to pick up the vials.

Mercy’s Delcher said the people responsible for the scam seem to know a lot about hospitals. "They’re targeting evening or weekend shifts," he said. "They do know processes, and they do know the verbiage, and they know when to call."

"This is the first time we’ve ever heard of something like this," he added.

Mercy has not yet lost any Neupogen to the scam artists—and Delcher wants to keep it that way. "What we’re all doing is tightening up our procedures," he said. He is also ensuring that other hospitals in the Baltimore area know about the theft attempts.

GBMC’s Kotzin said that borrowing medications from nearby hospitals is a necessary practice. "We do a lot of borrowing back and forth," he said. "I don’t think you can exist without the ability to do that to take care of your patients."

Kotzin stressed, however, that pharmacists need to verify the legitimacy of every borrowing request to prevent their hospitals from being victimized by thieves.