Ten years after the hepatitis epidemic, the medical register could end
CONCORD, NH — The medic who drew blood from New Hampshire Rep. Peter Schmidt after he broke his leg in February has been registered with the state, thanks to a 2014 law enacted after a technician traveling doctor has infected dozens of people with hepatitis C.
But by the time Schmidt was back on his feet, his colleagues had hijacked his bill to improve the registry. House lawmakers passed a bill last month eliminating the registration requirement altogether, and Schmidt is now urging senators to vote it down.
“Please don’t miss it, this is a terrible idea,” Schmidt said. “I think we have to keep registering these medical technicians, otherwise we are opening ourselves up to a potential repeat of the Exeter experience.”
New Hampshire created the Board of Registration for Medical Technicians in response to David Kwiatkowski, who is serving 39 years in prison for stealing painkillers and replacing them with saline-filled syringes contaminated with his blood.
“The actions of one bad actor, no matter how heinous, are no reason to force thousands of technicians to sign up and pay a fee,” Rep. Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, said when the House passed the bill last month.
But Linda Ficken, a Kansas woman who contracted hepatitis C from Kwiatkowski in 2011, said she believes any medical worker with access to the drugs should be registered and tested frequently.
“Every time I go to the hospital, I can’t help but wonder, is this a repeat?” she says. “Healed or not, the thoughts and anxiety are still there.”
Despite being fired multiple times over drug allegations, Kwiatkowski had worked at 18 hospitals in seven states before being hired at Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire. After his arrest in 2012, 46 people in four states were diagnosed with the same strain of hepatitis C virus he carries, including one who died in Kansas.
The case highlighted the fact that medical technicians are not as tightly regulated as nurses or doctors, whose misconduct and discipline are tracked via a national database. While some states require certain technicians to be licensed, four of the states where he worked had not licensed any at the time of his arrest, including New Hampshire.
However, the board has struggled to maintain a quorum and has not met in over a year, said Lindsey Courtney, director of the Office of Professional Licensing and Certification.
“We are very concerned that the state is not living up to its obligation to protect the public,” she told a public hearing.
Courtney, who takes no position on eliminating the council, supported Schmidt’s original proposal to convert it into an advisory committee that would make recommendations to his office. There are currently 1,691 registered technicians, and although complaints are rare, the council has taken action in a handful of cases each year.
Schmidt said his goal was to shift some of the administrative burden from the council to the larger agency. He hopes the Senate will either kill the amended bill or revert to its original idea.
While hospitals are on the front line in preventing and responding to drug diversion, partnership with public health, licensing and law enforcement agencies is critical, said Dr. Matthew Crist, a physician at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He said the CDC was unaware of outbreaks in recent years related to drug diversion and was cautiously optimistic given that healthcare facilities have improved safety around controlled drugs and many agencies State licensing agencies have taken steps to improve interstate communication.
In the decade before Kwiatkowski’s arrests, similar outbreaks of hepatitis C had been traced to other hospital technicians in Texas, Colorado and Florida, and CDC officials said at the time that the Kwiatkowski’s case had highlighted a problem that was of growing concern in the public health system.
Even if other states haven’t followed New Hampshire’s lead, the registry likely deterred people like Kwiatkowski from coming to the state in the first place, said State Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye , who led the bipartisan effort to create the board. .
Sherman, a gastroenterologist running for governor, played a key role in uncovering Kwiatkowski’s misconduct when he and his colleagues noticed a cluster of hepatitis C cases among their patients and realized they had all been treated in the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at Exeter Hospital. He is now urging his fellow senators to consider “the price of doing an experiment to see what will happen if we get rid of the council.”
“People have died because of this epidemic,” he said. “It was a very carefully thought out solution that worked. Removing it now means we just don’t learn from the story.