NEW YORK — A pharmacist who oversaw a major hospital's vault of drugs stole nearly 200,000 powerful painkillers he was supposed to safeguard and dispense, narcotics prosecutors said Tuesday as they unveiled a case that makes unusual use of a state drug-kingpin law.
For more than five years before his firing this spring, Anthony D'Alessandro exploited his access to the drug supply of what is now Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital to grab oxycodone and other pills by the hundreds and then fudged records to cover his tracks, city Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan's office said. Prosecutors are still investigating what became of the drugs but believe the medications ended up on the thriving black market for prescription narcotics, where the more than 193,000 missing pills could fetch a total of about $5.6 million.
The case is one of the most striking examples of a pharmacist being accused of becoming a drug thief, and it could be the first such use of a top-level New York drug trafficking law typically used against street dealers. It "underscores the vigilance required when addictive medication with a high resale value is readily available — even to licensed professionals and trusted employees," Brennan said.
While prosecutors paint D'Alessandro as a drug lord with a professional license, his lawyer said D'Alessandro was just a druggist with a problem.
"I was taking this drug for my own use," to feed an addiction and treat ankle pain, D'Alessandro told a hospital investigator in an April 11 statement prosecutors filed in court. He disputes taking the quantity of pills he's charged with diverting, attorney Joseph V. Sorrentino said, calling the trafficking charge "totally inappropriate."
Prosecutors noted that D'Alessandro came out clean when drug-tested April 11, and they said the sheer size of the alleged theft belied his claim of taking the pills himself.
If he had, "we'd be at his funeral, instead of his arraignment," prosecutor Ryan Sakacz told a judge as D'Alessandro entered a not-guilty plea.
D'Alessandro grabbed oxycodone and other drugs on nearly 220 different dates, even signing out 1,500 pills the day after hospital officials first approached him April 1 about the disappearing drugs, prosecutors said.
To account for the missing medicine, D'Alessandro made phony entries in an electronic inventory system to indicate that the drugs were being sent to a research pharmacy within the hospital, prosecutors said. The pharmacy wasn't doing any oxycodone research then, and staffers were unaware of the phony requisition slips, according to prosecutors.
A hospital spokesman wouldn't comment on whether there were mechanisms to ensure drugs dispensed were actually received. The hospital noted that it brought the case to authorities after getting an anonymous complaint.
D'Alessandro worked for about 14 years at Beth Israel, which merged into the Mount Sinai Health System in September.
The case against D'Alessandro, 47, marks the first time Brennan's office has charged a pharmacist under the 2009 kingpin law, which carries the potential for life in prison. It couldn't immediately be determined whether any other New York prosecutors have done so. Less than 60 arrests have been made statewide under the law since its inception, state Division of Criminal Justice Statistics data show.
Around the country, hospital pharmacists have occasionally been charged with getting involved in illicit drug use. Indeed, the idea has made its way into the public imagination in TV's fictional "Nurse Jackie," in which the title character has a relationship with a hospital pharmacist who supplies her with painkillers.
In real life, a onetime pharmacy director at another Manhattan hospital pleaded guilty in 1998 to a federal drug-distribution charge for taking about $60,000 worth of cancer drugs, antidepressants and other medications and selling them for cash, and he was sentenced to just over a year in prison.
More recently, a pharmacy manager was charged in 2008 with stealing a generic form of the stimulant Ritalin from a Raleigh, North Carolina, hospital.
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz.