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One of three employees indicted in February on charges of conspiring to steal and distribute prescription medication, including opioids, at the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital in Little Rock pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court.

Satishkumar "Steve" Patel, 44, of North Little Rock, a former pharmacy technician at the hospital, pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute the opioid painkiller oxycodone. He admitted that from April 13, 2016 through July 21, 2016, he conspired with others to distribute oxycodone, a Schedule II controlled substance, without a prescription.

In return for his guilty plea, six other charges against him were dropped.

Patel was accused of using his position to order about $77,000 worth of prescription drugs from a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical supplier and falsifying payment invoices to cover up the scheme.

In his plea agreement, he acknowledged that his crime involved 4,000 30-milligram oxycodone tablets. The amount of drugs involved plays a role in the sentence he will later receive.

While the offense is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million under federal law, federal sentencing guidelines recommend more than six years in prison for that amount of drugs, though the guidelines also consider other factors.

The plea agreement also states that at this time, the government and Patel agree he will owe $77,722.59 to the Central Arkansas Veterans Health Care System.

Last month, Alisha Pagan, 33, of Mabelvale pleaded guilty to the same charge as Patel, but her plea agreement specified that her conduct involved 1,000 30-milligram oxycodone tablets. The guidelines recommend a sentence of more than four years in prison for that amount of drugs.

Pagan's plea agreement requires her to pay about $22,000 in restitution to the health care system.

The third person indicted in the case, Nikita Neal, 42, of Little Rock, is facing an Oct. 30 jury trial before U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes on charges of conspiring to steal government property and conspiring with intent to distribute both hydrocodone, also a Schedule II opioid, and oxycodone.

According to the U.S. attorney's office, an investigation began in June 2016 when the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General received a report that large amounts of unaccounted-for prescription medications were charged to VA accounts.

Prosecutors said the investigation revealed that Patel used his access to a medical supplier's Web portal to order and divert the 4,000 oxycodone pills, as well as 3,300 hydrocodone pills, 308 ounces of promethazine with codeine syrup, and more than 14,000 Viagra and Cialis pills, at a cost to the VA of about $77,000.

During the course of the investigation, prosecutors said, the Office of Inspector General and the Drug Enforcement Administration determined that Patel distributed the medications to Pagan, who also was a pharmacy technician, and that she in turn distributed a portion of the drugs to Neal, a pharmacy technician trainee.

NW News on 09/30/2017

Print Headline: Ex-VA technician pleads guilty in opioid scheme

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