LORAIN COUNTY — Half of the drug cases Detective Gregg Mehling sees with the Lorain County Drug Task force involved people in the health care industry.

Since Jan. 1, 2010, he has investigated 43 healthcare professionals in Lorain County for drug abuse. Of those, 26 are nurses who are involved in theft of drugs or prescription pill scams in hospitals or nursing homes, Mehling said.

It’s a concern that people who are suppose to administer drugs to defenseless people have drug problems themselves, he said.

“Unfortunately, I see people in the health care industry that get in trouble and that leads to loss of respect for the drug,” he said. “These are drug addicts.”

 Although the number appears to be startling, Mehling said more people are reporting suspicion of wrongdoing.

“I’m not sure if the number is rising, but there’s more tools to figure it out,” he said. The county has five hospitals and 22 nursing homes.

“Ninety five percent of investigations are driven by complaints by the facility themselves,” he said. “Hospital administrators are really vigilant at looking for abnormalities.”

Personnel notice theft through a variety of sources. One is patients who say they have not received the pills they were supposed to take. Also, those abusing pills often leave a paper trail, Mehling said.

Hospitals use a Phyxis machine to dispense pills that is accessed with an employee ID, so there is a record of who was using the machine and what pill they were taking out. Nursing homes do not have this machine.

Ninety-five percent of the time nurses are abusing painkillers such as OxyCodone pills. Nurses also abuse injectable painkillers. In one case, he said one nurse injected four, fifty milligram tubes of Dilaudid into her system at one time. It’s a “pretty potent pain medication,” he said and it could be very dangerous to take that amount for those who do not have a tolerance.

The majority of the cases wind up court.

“I can’t even recall that we lost a case,” he said. The drug task force investigates wrongdoing with help of the Ohio Board of Nursing. The board received 6,880 complaints in the 2011 budget year that ended June 30, and the allegations are on pace for a double-digit increase in the two-year accounting period, the Associated Press reported. The complaints involved allegations of drug theft, substance abuse, patient abuse, poor practices and other criminal conduct.

Convicted nurses lose their license, but may be reinstated after a certain period of time. “There’s nurses I’ve arrested who are working now,” he said. “Some nurses we’ve had to look at two or three times.”

Next week, Mehling will send a case to the Lorain County Prosecutor’s Office for the indictment of a nurse for theft of drugs. That case will join several other indictments he is waiting upon. Recently, nurse Mary Howard, 36, of Lorain, a nurse at Mercy Regional Medical Center, pleaded guilty in February to seven counts of theft and illegal processing of drug documents, according to Lorain County Common Pleas Court records. In lieu of a conviction, she was sentenced to undergo treatment and counseling, gain full-time employment and pay supervision fees, according to court records.

Mehling said painkillers have similar effects of heroin. They slow down the nervous system and can be dangerous if abused. In some cases, abuse results in nurses deaths.

“We investigated two nurses that died as a result of accidental drug overdose,” Mehling said. The first was not a subject of an investigation, but the drug task force was called out when Avon Lake Police found a 49-year-old nurse found dead from a drug overdose in 2011. The second is Melissa Freistuhler, a nurse from Grafton, who was arrested for theft of drugs and illegal processing of drug documents among other charges, and who died a year later of a drug overdose in 2007.

“That’s sad,” he said. “These are human beings.”

But nurses are not the only medical professionals the drug task force has investigated. Mehling said they have arrested pharmacists, medical clerks, doctors, paramedics and other medical employees with access to drugs. Mehling mentioned a case involving one doctor from another county who was addicted to Percocet. He wrote prescriptions for non-existent patients and went to Lorain County pharmacies to fill them. Mehling didn’t want to reveal his name because his case is sealed.

In 2005, Rogelio Banaga, a doctor at Physicians Urgent Care Center on Oberlin Avenue, Lorain, was convicted for running a pill mill, which is when drugs are prescribed before care is given, Mehling said. Banaga pleaded guilty to attempted corrupting another with drugs, illegal processing of drug documents and carrying a concealed weapon. He served a year in the Ohio Correctional Institute in Grafton.

Anyone with information regarding possible drug abuse in healthcare facilities can call Mehling at 284-0615.

By KELLY PETRYSZYN kpetryszyn@MorningJournal.comTwitter: @MJ_KPetryszyn