Methadone Meltdown

Dr. Amos and Cecilia Ozumba ran Houston Maintenance Clinic for four years. Have they finally run it into the ground?

"We were just sitting there dosing, and all of a sudden they said, 'The DEA is in the building.' We weren't expecting them, but from the gossip, people were complaining about the clinic.

"[HMC] failed the inspection big-time, and then [Amos Ozumba] tried to blame it on [nurse] Audrey [Shippey] and I that things weren't right. They're looking through the books, the balances were wrong, the medicine was wrong, all of it was wrong. Dr. Ozumba tried to say it was us."

Nurse Audrey Shippey backs Thomlinson's story and then some.

"They are abusive to everyone. The employees, the clients, they are very rude to them. For example, there is this client that comes in every morning to be dosed, and since TCADA closed the place down, he's requesting to go back to the VA hospital where he came from, because now he has to pay $45 or $40 a week, and he doesn't have this money. And every time he comes and he requests to go back there, they get mad. I've heard Dr. Ozumba saying to the patient, 'Look at what I've done for you. When you came in here you looked so bad, you looked like nothing, and look at you now, you want to turn your back on me.' That's manipulation. These people are on drugs, and they're easily manipulated."

Nurses are not always as easily manipulated, and when the Ozumbas told Shippey to deliver a dose of methadone to a prison-bound client, Shippey had to refuse.

"They know that the client is no longer in their jurisdiction. I had to call the board of nurses."

The Board of Vocational Nurse Examiners confirms that it did receive an advice call from a nurse at HMC regarding prison delivery of methadone. The board advised the nurse that she could lose her license for following the Ozumbas' instructions.

Shippey also confirms a story related by several individuals about the late-February TCADA shutdown.

"Drugs were missing that day. There were two nurses there, myself and someone else, and I and the other nurse did the final count on the medication. She told me her balance was wrong, and I knew the balance was wrong, because I knew what I had out, and then when I go to find it, it was really missing. The medication was stolen from where we had it. We had three keys. I have one key, [Cecilia Ozumba] has one key, and her husband has another key. And I was with the people from TCADA. When I went back, the medication was missing. TCADA was made aware. I told TCADA everything that I knew. The lady from TCADA told me and the other nurse that we had inherited a problem, the books have not been kept properly for years. It's nothing new."

Emma Haywood, the "someone else" working with Shippey that day, says that a bottle of orange 40 milligram methadone wafers totaling 5,080 milligrams disappeared.

Shippey, who still worked at HMC at the time of her interview, said she was looking for a different job. Asked why she remained, she says, "Because of my clients. These clients are attached to me, and I look forward to taking care of these clients. That's the only reason I'm there, and I've told them that. And I've told my clients also that I'm looking for work, and they beg me every day not to go. I'm the only stable person they have there, if I have to say so myself."

Former nurse Lucille Villareal worked at HMC for two years, from 1996 to 1998, and, she says, almost had a nervous breakdown over the abuses.

"CeCe and Dr. Ozumba would tell me to ask the [methadone] patients if they had Medicare or Medicaid, and if they did to furnish their number. And that that would pay for their medication. And they would have counseling. They would have therapy. Well, they never did. They were charging their account 800 and some-odd dollars a month, and they never did get any kind of counseling or therapy. They would just come in every day to dose, get their medication and leave. They never did get counseling or therapy, but CeCe was still charging, billing Medicare/Medicaid, for something they weren't receiving. In fact, she used to get mad when they'd come in and talk to me about a problem."

Carl Sprague, a blind former HMC client whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was one such patient. Sprague says he agreed to sign papers that had not been read to him, and when he and his companion were called into the clinic for what was described as a routine physical examination, he went. Sprague says he stayed at the clinic an entire Friday and part of the morning on a Monday before deciding that the Narcotics Anonymous-style lectures he was hearing were something he had already heard plenty of times before, and he chose to leave. He did not return. Several weeks later Sprague's lawyer and trustee noticed a Medicare summary indicating a $3,950 HMC billing to Sprague's Medicare account for therapeutic and psychiatric services over a seven-day period.

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