Former Tomah VA nurse sentenced for prescribing opioids

Former Tomah VA nurse sentenced for prescribing opioids

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MADISON — A former nurse at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tomah was placed on three years’ supervised release Wednesday in federal court for prescribing opioids to a friend who was neither a patient nor a veteran.

The Medical Center was trying to recover its reputation after being called an opioid “Candy Land” when Jennifer Amble begin writing the first of the 83 controlled substance prescriptions to a “J.A.” a family friend.

A 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran died of an overdose in August 2014 at the Tomah VA and the Medical Center, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs worked to fight the opioid epidemic by adopting prescription safety measures and using alternatives to painkillers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Corey wrote the court.

Despite assurances from pharmaceutical companies that their opioid products were not addictive, 218,000 deaths resulted in the U.S. between 1999 and 2017 from prescription opioid overdoses, Corey noted.

As a nurse practitioner, Amble had prescription-writing authority from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

However, prescribing controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose is not only outside the scope of a professional practice but a serious offense aggravated by the medical community’s trying to reverse the culture of over-prescribing medications, Corey wrote.

“J.A.” told law enforcement that he became addicted to opioids due to Amble’s prescriptions and had to suffer through withdrawal without medical care.

Amble betrayed the trust the VA placed in her by using her prescription pad to provide controlled substances without proper pre-screening or follow-up care, Corey wrote.

Amble was caught by the Inspector General’s office when an irregularity was noticed in records of medications she dispensed.

Amble’s attorney, Dawn Marie Harris, of La Crosse, asked that her client be put on two years’ probation because the she has already lost her job, her ability to write prescriptions will probably never be restored, and the stigma of committing a felony.

Amble also would be punished while the Medical Center’s chief of staff was not. Dr. David Houlihan, who was called the Tomah VA’s “Candy Man” for allegedly overly medicating veteran patients with narcotics for years, was never charged. He was fired by the Tomah VA in 2015, but then established an independent psychiatric practice in La Crosse before arranging to surrender his medical license by 2017

Harris sought leniency for Amble, saying she has cared for others her entire life, beginning with her siblings when her mother was ill and her father was an alcoholic. Amble went on to marry, raised a child with autism, suffered from severe depression but still completed her nursing degree and passed medical exams.

Amble was hired by the Tomah VA in January 2016 and began prescribing opioids to J.A. in November 2016 until at least September 2017.

J.A. was a long-time family friend who Amble believed was in chronic pain and could help him by prescribing him opioids, Harris wrote.

Amble was never compensated by J.A. for any of the prescriptions.

She was fired by the VA in August 2019 and pleaded guilty to a controlled-substance charge in November.

At sentencing, Corey recommended a sentence of probation saying there were “no bad motivations” to Amble’s crime and she didn’t intend to harm anyone.

Amble told District Judge James Peterson that as a health-care professional she is held to a higher standard and “I failed. I’m sorry, I can’t go back and change it.”

Peterson asked Amble why she “didn’t come to her senses” when prescribing opioids to J.A. for more than a year’s time?

“I was manipulated and taken advantage of. I’d try and then there’d be threats and I couldn’t stop,” Amble said.

Although Amble faced a prison sentence of 18-24 months under the advisory federal guidelines, Peterson said she had suffered sufficient collateral consequences to satisfy the need for more punishment. He also noted that Amble provides significant care for her aging parents and her son and her incarceration would likely require extra government expense to substitute the care she is providing.

Peterson also said that Amble’s role in the opioid epidemic was modest and the real culprits weren’t in the courtroom.

“This wasn’t an indiscriminate distribution of opioids…The problems they had at Tomah pre-date her, although her wrongdoing does reflect on the institution,” the judge said.

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