GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – A woman sentenced in Greensboro last week to more than 4 years in federal prison for stealing drugs from a Winston-Salem hospital is at the core of record fines against two hospitals in Southern Virginia.

Emilee Kathryn Poteat, 32, of Danville, Virginia, a contract nurse for Novant Health in Winston-Salem, was sentenced June 1 in federal court in Greensboro to 54 months in prison for endangering lives and tampering with consumer products, a release from the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Middle District of North Carolina said.

But Poteat, who also worked as a registered nurse at Sovah Health in Danville, already was serving 3 years in federal prison after pleading guilty last year to a count of tampering with consumer products (fentanyl and hydromorphone) that affect interstate commerce, a count of reckless disregard for the risk that another person be placed in danger of death or bodily injury and a count of making false statements, the Register & Bee in Danville reported.

Sovah Health, which manages hospitals in both Danville and neighboring Martinsville, has been ordered to pay $4.36 million, the third-largest civil penalty ever, for violating the federal Controlled Substances Act because of Poteat and another employee who allowed thousands of opioids to be lost from the facilities.

The hospitals also accepted to serving 4 years of close scrutiny – a sort of probation – or face further fines and punishment – because the two employees were responsible for numerous violations that involved thousands of misdirected opioids between 2017 and 2020.

The DOJ says Paulette G. Toller, 60, of Chatham, Virginia, diverted more than 11,000 Schedule II controlled substances from the hospital, and Poteat “tampered with Fentanyl vials and hydromorphone injectables by replacing the controlled substance with saline and diverting the controlled substance.”

The Register & Bee said documents from the Drug Enforcement Administration reported that more than 13,000 controlled substance pills disappeared from Sovah Health-Danville over two years beginning in 2017.

The paper said Toller, who worked as a pharmacy technician, pleaded guilty to possessing with the intent to distribute and distributing a controlled substance, acquiring and obtaining possession of a controlled substance by misrepresentation, fraud, forgery or deception.

Court records show she was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison in 2020 following a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Jackson L. Kiser, the Register & Bee reported.

Poteat had pleaded guilty last year to a count of tampering with consumer products (fentanyl and hydromorphone) that affect interstate commerce, a count of reckless disregard for the risk that another person be placed in danger of death or bodily injury and a count of making false statements, a news release reported. That led to her original sentence.

Charges in North Carolina

The charges against Poteat in Winston-Salem follow her indictment in June 2021 and are similar to the charges in Virginia. The indictment alleges that between July 1, 2020, and Oct. 28, 2020, she “did, with reckless disregard for the risk that another person would be placed in danger of bodily injury and under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to such risk, tamper and attempt to tamper with a consumer product that affected interstate commerce to wit: three syringes of injectable hydromorphone.”

The DOJ says Poteat had access to a Pyxes machine, which is where controlled medications are stored in locked drawers and access is limited by prescriptions. The vials holding the drugs also have tamper-resistant packaging.

But Poteat is said to have opened packages containing vials of injectable Hydromorphone and then injected the drugs into herself. She then replaced the drugs with saline to hide the theft, the documents say.

But that also meant that the saline solution might be used by a nurse for a patient requiring medication and thus place that patient in harm.

The release did not specify if Poteat had pleaded guilty, but in addition to her prison sentence, she was ordered to pay a $3,000 fine and will face 3 years of supervised release.

Hospitals’ failures

Because of Poteat and Toller, the DOJ said that Sovah Health “failed to provide effective controls and procedures to guard against the diversion of controlled substances, filled orders for controlled substances without a system in place to disclose suspicious orders of controlled substances, and failed to maintain readily retrievable records of controlled substances.”

“As opioid overdose deaths skyrocket, it is critical that health care companies are held accountable when they fail to effectively safeguard these powerful prescriptions within their facilities,” Christopher R. Kavanaugh, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said in the release. “The oversight provided by this resolution will ensure future compliance involving these important but potentially deadly substances, and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia will continue to vigorously pursue these cases with our federal and local partners in order to protect Virginia’s communities.”

Sovah is part of the LifePoint Hospital system based in Brentwood, Tennessee, that owns nine facilities in North Carolina, although none in the Piedmont Triad.

WGHP also reached out to Novant for its reaction to the fine against Sovah, but there was no immediate response.