Meningitis victims hope for Mass. criminal charges
BOSTON — Dirk Thompson III doesn't hold out much hope that he and the 750 other victims in a nationwide meningitis outbreak will ever see much, if any, compensation for the deaths and illnesses caused by tainted steroids.
He hopes to find justice another way if criminal charges are brought against the principals of a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy that made the steroid injections blamed for the fungal meningitis outbreak.
A federal grand jury in Boston has been investigating the New England Compounding Center for more than a year. A separate grand jury in Minnesota also has been conducting an investigation.
"They have to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," said Thompson, 58, of Howell, Mich., who was hospitalized for 38 days with meningitis after receiving a steroid injection for back pain. "They were totally irresponsible."
Since the contaminated steroids were first discovered, 751 people in 20 states have developed fungal meningitis or other infections, including 64 who died. Michigan, Tennessee and Indiana were the hardest-hit states.
Federal prosecutors have declined to comment on the investigation, but the FBI recently asked anyone who received one of the tainted injections to fill out a questionnaire detailing their illnesses and saying whether they believe another medication distributed by NECC caused harm to them or their family.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a statement on Sunday that he and Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz was scheduled to hold a news conference today to discuss a development in the independent state and federal investigations into NECC.
Victim survey deadline
The FBI, which has also sent agents to visit victims, set a Nov. 30 deadline for victims to submit the surveys online or to mail them to its health care fraud squad in Boston.
It is unclear whether the company or its executives will face criminal charges. Several lawyers who represent victims in lawsuits say health care companies charged with selling contaminated drugs often reach settlements with the federal government and agree to pay large fines. But the New England Compounding case is different because of the large number of deaths and serious illnesses caused by the tainted steroids.
"If there's enough evidence to show that these companies were operating and that the executives were operating in a way that was going to harm and hurt and eventually cause death, then we would presume that there would be some action, other than just a fine," said Boston attorney Kim Dougherty, whose firm represents more than 100 people who became ill or died in the outbreak.
Inspectors found a host of potential contaminants at the company's Framingham plant, including standing water, mold, water droplets and dirty equipment. Fungus was found in more than 50 vials from the pharmacy.
Regulators have also said the company did not perform enough tests before sending the drugs to hospitals and clinics and sent drugs in bulk quantities instead of prescriptions for individual patients.
The company gave up its license and filed for bankruptcy protection after it was flooded with hundreds of lawsuits from victims. A bankruptcy court judge has set a Jan. 15 deadline for victims to file claims.
"I hope that the people involved are held accountable and that they are prosecuted to the full extent of the law," said George Cary, whose wife, Lilian, 67, developed fungal meningitis and died about a month later.
Cary, of Howell, Mich., received steroid shots at the same pain management clinic as his wife. He became ill with meningitis several weeks later and was hospitalized for three months.
"I think the victims all feel ... that none of the laws or regulations seem to have applied to (the people involved), and they've continued on with their lives while the victims have suffered immensely, deaths have occurred, people's whole families have been dramatically changed," Cary said. "This has really been a national disaster."
Attorneys for the company's principals, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, would say only that the investigation is continuing.