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SALT LAKE CITY — A former Layton emergency room nurse suspected of infecting at least seven patients with hepatitis C faces federal charges as part of the nation's biggest ever health care fraud crackdown.
Elet Neilson, also known as Elet Hamblin, was charged in U.S. District Court with eight counts of tampering with a consumer product and eight counts of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Utah Department of Health in late 2014 launched an investigation into a hepatitis C outbreak in the Ogden area, eventually focusing on the McKay-Dee Hospital emergency room where Neilson worked.
The probe found that at least seven patients to whom Neilson, 50, administered intravenous opioid painkillers or morphine between July 2013 and November 2014 were infected with the disease, according to the indictment. It is unknown how she contracted hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C, a virus that attacks the liver, is transmitted through contact with infected blood, typically by sharing needles.
According to the indictment, Neilson caused serious bodily harm to patients by "diverting the narcotics and injecting it prior to use in another person."
"We've never seen a case like this in Utah," said U.S. Attorney John Huber.
He called it a "nightmare" for people who are at a vulnerable point in their lives.
"This is as bad as it gets for us humans to go to the hospital and be treated like that," Huber said. Someone with "apparently selfish motives and desires," he said, exposed patients to a risk they would never would have been exposed to otherwise.
Neilson admitted to the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing in December 2014 that she stole morphine and Dilaudid from the McKay-Dee stockroom weekly for seven months for her own use. She lost her nursing license, and the hospital fired her.
Neilson also stole IV Benadryl from Davis Hospital and Medical Center in Layton where she worked from 2011 to 2013, according to the indictment.
McKay-Dee administrators in November 2015 asked nearly 7,200 patients at the Ogden and Layton hospitals to get tested for hepatitis C in November after Neilson and a patient both tested positive for the same rare strain of hepatitis C.
State prosecutors charged Neilson with attempted possession or use of a controlled substance, a third-degree felony, in January 2015. She pleaded guilty to reduced class A misdemeanor and was sentenced to 24 months probation.
Neilson will be issued a summons to appear in federal court on the 16-count indictment. Each product tampering charge carries a 20-year prison term, while fraudulently obtaining drugs is four years per count.
The charges against Neilson were part of what the Department of Justice called the largest ever health care fraud enforcement action by the Medicare Fraud Strike Force.
Federal authorities charged 412 people — including 115 doctors, nurses and other licensed medical professionals — in 41 judicial districts across the country for alleged participation in schemes totaling about $1.3 billion in false billings.
More than 120 defendants, including doctors, were charged for their roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other dangerous narcotics, according to the DOJ.
Huber said the Utah case shows how deeply the opioid "crisis" is affecting the state, that even medical professionals are succumbing to narcotics abuse.