A elderly pharmacist who admitted 21 counts of deception in which she falsified Health Service Executive (HSE) drug forms and patient medication records was warned by a judge she faces a prison sentence.
Christine Crowley (72) was told by Judge Sean O'Donnabhain that, in all his years on the Circuit Criminal Court, he had "never come across a case where the deceit was so organised".
Judge O'Donnabhain also said that other elements of Ms Crowley's deception were "egregious" and he was very concerned that her scheme was so organised and went on for so long.
Ms Crowley, of Main Street, Drimoleague, Co Cork benefited by more than €70,000 from fraudulent Drug Payment Scheme and Long Term Illness Scheme drug forms.
While the total value of medications involved in the 21 sample counts was more than €1.1m, the bulk of the value of the claims were in fact for genuine medication supplies.
Ms Crowley admitted that she "dishonestly by deception" made fraudulent claims under those same forms for her own benefit and at the expense of the HSE.
Judge O'Donnabhain was told that the total sum to which Ms Crowley benefited by was €70,000.
Jim O'Mahony SC, for Ms Crowley, told the court that the entire €70,000 has since been repaid to the HSE.
This was done by Ms Crowley, who operated two pharmacies in Dunmanway in west Cork, working for a period of 13 months for the HSE with the agency not making any drug repayments to her over the period.
The court was told that, together with her husband, she put all her pensions and savings into keeping the two pharmacies operating while the HSE had suspended all drug payments.
She no longer has any involvement in the businesses and is not allowed near the pharmacies.
The Irish Pharmaceutical Union has since commenced disciplinary proceedings against her.
She pleaded guilty to a total of 21 sample counts of deception in respect of HSE Drug Payment Scheme and Long Term Illness Scheme drug forms, as well as altering patient medication records, on dates between September 1 2004 and June 5 2009.
Judge O'Donnabhain was told that Ms Crowley's plea had saved the court enormous time and effort given the five week trial that was expected.
Had the case gone to trial, it would have involved a total of 173 charges, 181 witnesses and more than 1,500 pieces of evidence.
Det Garda Elisabeth O'Sullivan said the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau became involved when they were contacted by the HSE amid concerns following an audit at Ms Crowley's pharmacies.
HSE officials noted a number of discrepancies over medication supplies.
Gardai later discovered that payments had been made for medications that were never prescribed and never dispensed.
Gardaí identified 83 patient records and focussed on three of these patients during an investigation launched in 2009.
Det Garda O'Sullivan said that "a snapshot" of a single six month period revealed Ms Crowley had sought compensation under various drug schemes from the HSE for medications to a value of €70,000 which were never dispensed.
"These medications were never prescribed by a GP or doctor, the medications were never dispensed from the pharmacy and these medications were never received by the patients involved," she said.
Det Garda O'Sullivan said civil action is now underway by the HSE in respect of other monies at loss outside of that specific six month period and dating from 2004 when the deception first began.
A "significant sum" has since been ring-fenced in respect of this HSE action.
Defence counsel, Jim O'Mahony SC, said the offences have had a terrible impact on the defendant.
"Her name has been ruined (in west Cork). It is a disaster for her. Ms Crowley was never in trouble before. What she did was wrong. But she has paid the money back. She made a total of mess of this," he said.
The court was told that Ms Crowley now suffers from a number of serious health problems while also acting as carer for her 74 year old husband who is also in frail health.
He said there was no question that Ms Crowley had indulged in a lavish lifestyle as a consequence of the deception, stressing there were "no yachts or plots of land."
However, Judge O'Donnabhain said it was a very serious case of deception.
"I cannot see my way to impose a fully suspended prison sentence," he warned.
"There is method and application in every deceit or fraud. But this...is on a different level," he said.
"This is egregious criminal behaviour. I have never come across a case where the deceit was so organised."
Judge O'Donnabhain remanded Ms Crowley in custody for sentencing on April 4 next.
He directed that a medical report be prepared by the Irish Prison Service medical unit for that date.