One doctor took his patient’s injectable morphine home with him — and almost killed himself with it that same night.
Across the state, a doctor wrote prescriptions for highly addictive painkillers to fellow employees who had no documented medical need. The same physician, who was on call at the time, was found asleep at his home after he failed to show up when he was summoned by staff.
Another doctor with a long history of substance abuse was in charge of a nurse’s aide who was convicted of sexually abusing two helpless veterans. The doctor was fired the day after she testified against the aide in court.
Veterans centers in Oklahoma routinely hire doctors and other licensed medical personnel with a record of problems to treat the state’s sickest, most vulnerable veterans.
Officials with the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs say money is the culprit, claiming it’s difficult to find suitable applicants with clean records to work at the state’s seven veterans centers.
Nearly all of the doctors identified by The Oklahoman were disciplined before they took jobs treating the state’s veterans.
And while most of these doctors have gone on to work with veterans without incident, a handful continued to behave badly after they were hired.
Like other state agencies who are forced to hire doctors in order to perform their basic function, the practice of hiring doctors in need of a second chance has been going on for decades and continues to be employed by the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs.
Data provided by the department shows that six of the 18 physicians on staff at state-run veterans centers across Oklahoma have been in some kind of trouble during their careers, mostly due to substance abuse.
Nearly all of the disciplined doctors work at the Claremore Veterans Center, the records show.
The agency also has not been shy about firing doctors or physician assistants.
Veterans Affairs has fired 19 doctors or physician assistants since 2005.
Termination documents provided by the agency say nothing about why the doctors and physician assistants were fired. Agency officials said that such information is not subject to Oklahoma’s open records laws.
‘Watch them like a hawk’
In most cases, doctors and other staff with checkered pasts who end up working for the Department of Veterans Affairs go about their business without incident. In some cases, agency Director John McReynolds said they have been known to thrive and excel.
“Most of them, when they get here and get to this point in their careers, they know they are lucky,” he said. “They know they really can’t screw up again.”
Yet, a few of these doctors would continue their troublesome ways while on the agency’s payroll, though McReynolds remarked that such cases are met with swift termination.
“We watch them like a hawk,” he said.
One of the doctors who couldn’t shake his past, Jonathan Ek, would violate his patient’s trust in a way that nearly cost him his own life.
Ek, a medical doctor, was hired by the department in November 2009. He worked at the Clinton center for roughly five months before he was terminated following a bizarre incident involving a new patient and an unspecified quantity of injectable morphine.
“On or about April 7, 2010, the family of a patient who had been transferred to the facility where (Ek) worked gave the patient’s medications to (Ek),” a medical board investigator wrote in document outlining the terms of Ek’s surrender of his medical license.
“(Ek) placed the injectable morphine returned by the patient into his pocket. He then took it home with him, at which time he injected himself on three separate occasions, causing him to overdose on morphine. (Ek) had to be resuscitated and was taken to the Clinton emergency room.”
Not surprisingly, Ek was fired by department officials following the incident. Yet, at the time, it should hardly have come as a surprise that Ek would behave that way.
Ek had a signficant drug problem by the time he was hired by the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. The opening lines of a medical board complaint filed against the doctor in December 2008 leave no doubt about that.
“(Ek) has a long history of drug abuse,” the board investigator wrote in the complaint.
“(Ek) admits use or abuse of marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, LSD, psilocybin, dexedrine, darvon, codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, Demerol, morphine sulfate, Fentanyl, Nubain, Ultram, Xanax, Ativan, Valium, whippets, phentermine, Ephedra and alcohol.”
Ek also admitted that he was hosptialized twice prior to entering medical school, both times because of drug use.
“The first hospitialization was for two weeks due to LSD-induced psychosis,” a board investigator wrote in Ek’s complaint from 2008. “The second hospitalization was for one year and was residential treatment due to LSD psychosis. When (Ek) was discharged after the second hospitalization, he immediately began IV cocaine use.”
The complaint against Ek also revealed that he was “diagnosed with bipolar disorder” and he was kicked out of his medical school residency program in August 2003 for “smoking cocaine and for personality conflicts.”
Prior to joining Veterans Affairs, Ek also was cited for lying about his drug use on licensure application forms and for engaging in oral sex with a female patient in his office. Board investigators wrote in the complaint that the woman was receiving large amounts of painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs from Ek at the time.
Other times, it can be hard to measure just how much damage has been done to Oklahoma veterans by doctors who could not shed their bad habits.
For Linda Lucio, a medical doctor who was fired from her job at the Norman Veterans Center in December 2012, that appears to be the case.
Court records on file at the Cleveland County District Court show that Lucio was the medical director at the Norman facility for years.
Toward the end of her time with the agency, an unskilled nurse’s aide was arrested, charged and eventually convicted of sex crimes involving two of the most vulnerable residents in the care of the state agency. Jeremy Craig Lyday, who is now 30, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in December 2012 after it was determined that he raped and sodomized two dementia-stricken patients in 2011.
Lucio testified at Lyday’s criminal trial, serving as one of the key witnesses for prosecutors. She was fired the day after she gave testimony, records show.
A review of trial transcripts reveals that Lucio’s past and her history of addiction were not called into question during the legal proceedings.
During testimony, Lucio said that she was the medical director at the Norman center and that she had only three other doctors on staff.
McReynolds, who had just taken over his job as director of the agency when Lucio testified in court, said the doctor’s firing had nothing to do with the case against Lyday.
“That was just a coincidence as far as I know,” he said.
Like most of the doctors fired by the department, the precise reason Lucio was terminated is not a matter of public record.
And while Lucio was fired by the agency on Dec. 7, 2012, her probation was lifted by the state Medical Board in May 2013, less than six months after she was terminated.
Other doctors let their demons directly affect the residents at the centers.
In 2011, Michael Whinery, a doctor of osteopathy, was cited when his behaviors began to impact the men and women he was being paid to care for.
According to a records on file with the Oklahoma Board of Osteopathic Examiners, Whinery began to display signs of substance abuse after he missed several days of work without good reason.
Board investigators would look into Whinery at this time and found out he was being prescribed large amounts of addictive narcotics from a doctor in Norman. He also was cited in 2010 for unlawfully prescribing addictive painkillers to fellow employees at the Claremore Veterans Center.
Staff members at the center also began reporting that Whinery smelled like alcohol in the mornings when showed up to work during this time.
Perhaps the worst episode, especially given a doctor’s oath, took place in early 2011.
“During the first quarter of 2011, when Dr. Whinery was on-call and the staff needed him at the center, Dr. Whinery failed to respond to their calls,” a complaint against Whinery stated.
“When staff went to his house they found him there asleep.”
Lucio now works for a well-known hosptial in Oklahoma City. Ek, who also holds a medical license in Illinois, has since moved out of Oklahoma.
Whinery still works at the Claremore Veterans Center, where he’s been an employee since 2000.
An ongoing problem
McReynolds said the agency, which is one of the largest in Oklahoma with more than 2,000 employees, will likely continue to hire doctors with sketchy pasts well into the future. He said getting more money from the legislature is always a challenge.
“You hate to say it, but money has a lot to do with it,” McReyonlds said, adding that things have improved since he took over less than two years ago.
“It’s not like we can go out and spend whatever we want to spend. We are definitely at a disadvantage when it’s time to hire (a new doctor). We definitely have restrictions on what we can offer a candidate.”
Money is a constant issue for the agency, but McReynolds said finding a doctor without any kind of disciplinary history is nearly impossible these days.
“Doctors are human beings, they make mistakes like the rest of us,” McReynolds said. “But it is difficult, these days, to see an applicant come in here and be qualified and have the necessary experience, but then they have these marks on their background. At that point, you have to make a decision.”
State Sen. Frank Simpson, who is the chairman of the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, said getting more money for Veterans Affairs — and pretty much any other state agency out there — is “extremely challenging.”
Simpson said he has helped to pass legislation to improve veteran care and oversight of the agency’s employees, but he said more work is needed.
He said the recent case of Kenneth A. Adams, a former physician assistant at the Claremore Veterans Center who is accused of allowing two men under his care to die, is drawing further attention to the problem of veteran care.
Adams was bound over for trial following a preliminary hearing on Tuesday. He is set to be arraigned next month on two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of caretaker neglect.
Prosecutors allege Adams neglected his medical duties at the veterans center so severely that Louis Arterberry, 86, and Jay Minter, 85, died because of it.
Simpson said Adams’ wife was an administrator at the center, near Tulsa, and that she kept his poor work performance from being documented.
“I’m disappointed that we can’t find a higher quality of physician to take care of our heroes ... As I move forward ... one of the things we have to continue to focus on is the level of pay for not only doctors, but also skilled nurses at our centers. Those are two critical areas where we’re not doing a good job finding quality folks.”
Like McReynolds, Simpson also believes that high turnover among department staff is another problem that needs to be solved. The elected official, who took office in 2010, said high turnover has a direct impact on the care of veterans.
“It’s hard to retain good nurses and other medical staff when they can typically go out and find another job that makes anywhere from 20 to 50 percent more than we’re able to get them,” Simpson said.