BEVERLY — A now-former Beverly Hospital pharmacy technician has been charged with stealing nearly 18,000 pills and vials of medication, including opiates like Percocet, OxyContin and fentanyl, over a 13-month period. 

One state investigator called the amount of pills "astonishing" — and questioned how hospital officials could have failed to notice something was wrong. 

Lisa R. Tillman, 49, of 9 Linden St., Salem, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to one count of larceny of drugs during her arraignment in Salem District Court. 

The charges came after an investigation by state and Danvers police, the Department of Public Health and the Drug Enforcement Administration. 

Tillman, who at the time of the alleged thefts was living in Peabody, has denied selling or giving the medications to anyone. She told state police investigators that she was using some of the drugs for herself, then flushing the rest, an assertion state troopers have questioned, according to the complaint. 

Investigators say in court papers that Tillman was able to exploit a feature of the hospital's new prescription management system by wrongly marking pills as "outdated" and removing them from the automated dispensing machine. But, investigators say, instead of putting the pills in a safe meant for expired medications to be returned to a distributor, she took them home with her, often taking dozens of pills during a shift. 

Tillman, hired by Northeast Health Systems in 2009, worked an overnight shift that included, as part of her duties, filling the machines at Beverly Hospital and its satellite locations in Danvers, Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester and Bayridge Hospital in Lynn.  

The machines are intended to prevent diversion of medications, a problem in health care facilities like hospitals and nursing homes, by limiting access to identified individuals — requiring an identification badge and a fingerprint to access — and requiring a record of what was dispensed. Most nurses are allowed to access only certain machines in the department where they are assigned, investigators were told. 

But Tillman had access to all of the machines throughout Northeast Health Systems because of her job, investigators learned. 

According to court papers, Tillman would also at times go to the Danvers outpatient center on her days off, while it was closed, to access the machines and take pills. 

The hospital's director of pharmacy later conceded that she was unaware of a state regulation that required that whenever a quantity for a controlled narcotic is changed in an automated dispensing machine, two licensed staff members are required to sign off on the change, according to court papers. 

DPH investigation

The scheme came to light in March, when Tillman's duties changed after the hospital changed some of its procedures. Investigators were told that Tillman complained to supervisors about her new role. 

Shortly after that, the hospital's pharmacy director noticed for the first time that Tillman had, on a recent shift, marked 46 Percocet pills as "outdated." This, she told investigators, was unusual, because the hospital typically used large amounts of Percocet for pain management, so it was unlikely they would expire. 

Confronted by hospital administrators, Tillman denied any wrongdoing, telling them that other employees could have used her identification to take the pills, and that they could not prove it was her. When told that her fingerprint could not be faked, and that they had surveillance images of her at satellite locations on her days off, Tillman said nothing, according to court papers. 

Tillman was suspended and the hospital conducted an audit, initially going back two months, and then eventually to 2016. 

They discovered she had marked 11,347 Percocet pills as outdated, along with 5,133 generic oxycodone pills, 409 OxyContin pills (approximately half of which were 80 milligram pills with a street value of $100 each), 330 hydrocodone pills, and 530 Adderall pills, as well as six vials of fentanyl that she identified as damaged and smaller numbers of other pills.

"The amount of narcotics diverted by Tillman in a 13-month period is astonishing and more than any one individual could consume, and appears to be a distribution issue," wrote Nancy O'Leary, an investigator with the Department of Public Health Drug Control Program. "The incident is also concerning because none of the pharmacists noticed that they were ordering thousands of dollars of additional opiates each month when they had no evidence to support the spike in purchases."

O'Leary noted in her report that the investigation is continuing. 

Hospital: Thefts 'troubling'

Questioned by state police, Tillman acknowledged she had lied to hospital administrators when she denied taking the pills. Tillman said she was going through "rough times," and began taking pills, but that she had managed to wean herself from them by locking herself in her bedroom for two days, Trooper Kristine O'Neill wrote in her report. 

Christopher Murphy, a spokesman for the hospital, said Tillman was fired as a result of the discovery and the hospital has implemented new procedures to prevent similar thefts in the future. 

"All appropriate regulatory, professional licensing and law enforcement agencies were immediately notified and the hospital is cooperating fully with their investigations," said Murphy in an email. "This incident had no impact on patient care and did not impact drug availability for patients in need."

Murphy went on to call the thefts "particularly troubling, as we see the devastating effects of substance abuse on our community every day. The actions of this individual, who allegedly abused her position for personal gain with no consideration of the people that would be harmed by her actions, were reprehensible."

Tillman's attorney, Elizabeth Fiori, did not return a call for comment on Wednesday. 

Tillman, who voluntarily surrendered her pharmacy technician license in August, remains free on $10,000 personal surety. She's been ordered to stay away from Beverly Hospital properties unless she's suffering a medical emergency.

If convicted, Tillman could face up to 10 years in state prison.

Tillman is due back in court for a probable cause hearing on Nov. 30. 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.