updated 8/7/2009 11:52:07 AM ET 2009-08-07T15:52:07

A surgery technician accused of swapping her dirty syringes for ones filled with powerful painkillers meant for patients, possibly exposing thousands of people to hepatitis C, pleaded not guilty to federal charges Thursday.

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Prosecutors claim Kristen Diane Parker, 26, is linked to at least 19 cases of hepatitis C in patients who underwent surgery at two Colorado hospitals. She appeared in court on charges of tampering and illegally obtaining a controlled substance.

She could face life in prison if convicted at trial, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 28.

According to prosecutors, Parker was addicted to painkillers and may have exposed up to 6,000 patients at Denver's Rose Medical Center and Colorado Springs' Audubon Surgery Center to hepatitis C, an incurable liver disease. She's accused of taking syringes full of Fentanyl, a painkiller up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, from operating carts and replacing them with ones she had filled with saline.

Officials believe patients may have been exposed by her dirty needles or from contaminated saline bottles.

Health officials said of the thousands of patients tested so far, 16 cases at Rose and one case at Audubon may be linked to Parker. Prosecutors say they've linked her to 19 cases through a review of Rose's records that found the hepatitis C in former surgery patients is of the same genotype as hers.

The investigation is continuing and more charges are possible, federal prosecutors said. Parker's attorney, Gregory Graf, did not return messages.

In a separate court filing Thursday, prosecutors asked the court for permission to turn over documents from grand jury proceedings that contain patient names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth and medical information to Parker's defense attorneys.

Prosecutors say the information is necessary for Parker's defense.

Investigations have also been launched in Mount Kisco, N.Y., and in Houston, where Parker previously worked at hospitals.

In New York, Northern Westchestern Hospital spokesman Mark Vincent said Thursday that test results from 1,227 patients found no hepatitis C cases linked to Parker.

The New York health department said there's evidence Parker did the same thing when she worked there between October 2007 and February 2008, and nearly 2,800 patients were advised to get tested. Hospital officials hold out hope that Parker contracted the disease after her time there.

"Parker claims that she was using intravenous drugs and sharing needles, after her employment with NWH, while living in New Jersey, and is 99.5 percent sure this was how she was exposed to" the disease, the hospital said in a statement based on Parker's interview with police.

In the same statement, the hospital said Parker was terminated for unrelated performance issues. Neither Vincent nor New York health department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond would elaborate.

Parker also worked at Houston's Christus St. John Hospital, near NASA's Johnson Space Center, between May 2005 and October 2006. Harris County health department spokeswoman Rita Obey said an examination of their records found no outbreak of hepatitis C that may be linked to Parker and they're waiting to determine whether Parker had the disease during her time there to decide to conclude their investigation.

St. John hospital officials, who did not immediately return messages Thursday, have said they found no reason to suspect patients were exposed.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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