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1 in 3 state veterans center doctors has marred record

by Andrew Knittle Modified: March 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm •  Published: March 16, 2014
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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.

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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