ND state agency accuses former supervisor of forging prescriptions
A former supervisor at the Northeast Human Service Center in Grand Forks is accused of using a psychiatrist's prescription pad and forging his signature to obtain painkillers from local pharmacies.
Tami Dawn Byzewski, who oversaw more than 20 state employees, came under scrutiny after the psychiatrist, Dr. Steven Hill, who works for NEHS, received a fax from the CVS Pharmacy in Grand Forks asking whether it was his signature on prescriptions that investigators say Byzewski purchased.
Hill received the fax Aug. 28, and the center alerted authorities of what it believed were forgeries and put Byzewski on administrative leave the same day, NEHS regional director Kate Kenna said.
Investigators found records that show Byzewski received four prescriptions under Hill's name: 30 tablets of hydrocodone May 23; 30 tablets of hydrocodone Aug. 10; 30 tablets of hydrocodone Aug. 15; and 30 tablets of oxycodone Aug. 22, according to a criminal complaint.
Hill told investigators he did not write the Aug. 10, 15 and 22 prescriptions; however, he acknowledged writing the May 23 prescription for Byzewski, the complaint says.
Kenna said it's rare for center physicians to prescribe medication to center employees. But generally speaking, she said an emergency situation could arise where a center physician would prescribe medication to an employee who says she's injured and needs some painkillers but is not able to obtain them in the next few days from her regular physician. Kenna said Hill described a similar situation involving him and Byzewski in a statement submitted to authorities. Hill declined to comment and referred questions to Kenna.
In an e-mail that Kenna shared with investigators, Byzewski wrote that a prescription pad with four scripts was left on her desk last winter.
"I was going through withdrawal at that time and prescriptions were tempting, but (I) had better judgment. As time has gone on, my tolerance and obvious addiction has increased, thus causing more severe withdrawal. The combination of pain, medications, withdrawal lead to extremely poor judgment and out of sheer desperation, I used a prescription," the e-mail read.
Byzewski, 39, of Grand Forks, also wrote that she felt guilty for what she had done. "Dr. Hill is a kind gentle, wonderful man and psychiatrist. I am physically sick that I have disrespected him in this manner," her e-mail stated.
Dr. Hill told investigators he did not leave a blank prescription pad on Byzewski's desk.
In a letter dated Sept. 1, Kenna told Byzewski "it appears that you obtained a prescription pad from one of the physicians at Northeast Human Service Center, forged his signature and wrote a prescription to yourself. This is a clear violation of DHS policy. It is for this reason I am considering terminating your employment." In the letter, Kenna gave Byzewski a chance to respond to the allegations. Instead, Byzewski stepped down Sept. 11 "due to a chronic medical issue," according to her resignation letter.
Byzewski, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology, began working at NEHS, an agency within the North Dakota Department of Human Services, in 1997. In 2006, she became the head of a program that serves individuals with severe and chronic mental illnesses.
Kenna said that before this incident, she had heard only good news about Byzewski as an employee. Byzewski's personnel file contains evaluations that say she met or exceeded the center's expectations.
"I really did think Tami did a good job at Northeast, so this is really unfortunate," Kenna said.
Surveillance cameras at the Grand Forks CVS and the Crookston Wal-Mart captured images of Byzewski purchasing the forged prescriptions, according to investigators' reports.
She faces two counts of illegally obtaining or acquiring a controlled substance in North Dakota and charges of possessing a controlled substance and fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance in Minnesota. The four counts each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Byzewski's attorney, Monty Stensland, said it's too early in the case for him to comment and that he hasn't had a chance to discuss the matter with prosecutors. Though, he said, he has gone through his client's record, and "she's never been in trouble in her life."
Stensland is handling the charges against Byzewski in North Dakota. The attorney believed to be representing her in Minnesota did not return a message left at his office Tuesday.
Byzewski posted $2,000 to bail out of the Grand Forks County jail on Sept. 16. She is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Oct. 21. There is a warrant for her arrest in Polk County.
Rx pad access
An investigator's report says Byzewski "would have easily had access to prescription notes belonging to Dr. Hill and NEHS."
Kenna said the center is taking extra precautions to make sure pads are available to only those allowed to write prescriptions.
"I think we have some lessons to learn from this," she said. "I guess right now we certainly would look at giving even a couple days medication to a staff person, but we had no reason to suspect this was a problem."
In the past, Kenna said, the center has not had issues with prescription pads being taken.
"They're not out in the open. They're locked up at night. But she was a supervisor, though," Kenna said, adding that Byzewski could have opened a drawer and taken a pad.
NEHS staff deal with addiction in their work and are trained to see the warning signs of substance abuse, but as far as Kenna knows, those signs weren't seen in Byzewski.