Lawmaker calls special hearing to address nursing disciplinary delays

JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – Senator Rusty Crowe, (R-District 3), says he has called a special hearing to address the results of our Community Watchdog investigation into state disciplinary action delays for drug-addicted nurses.

“I think it’s just something that legitimately needs to be looked at,” Sen. Crowe said.

The chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee says the hearing will be an opportunity for lawmakers to question the Department of Health and Board of Nursing about the disciplinary process and discuss possible solutions.

Our investigation identified one disciplinary case involving a nurse with a history of drug diversion that took more than two years to resolve, the equivalent of 785 days. While under investigation, Michael Burkhart kept his license, found two new healthcare jobs, entered and left a treatment program and admitted to stealing drugs at an area hospital.

“I was shocked to see in your report that they’re taken out of their job, they’re fired and they go to other locations to work before the complaint’s resolved,” he said. “That’s really dangerous.”

Sen. Crowe says now that he’s aware of some of the delays, he wants the state to study the issue further.

“The length of time is way too long,” he said. “Gosh, just due to that type of complaint there should have been an administrative process to take him out of the loop, I think.”

Sen. Crowe says much like a police officer is temporarily suspended while under internal investigation, a nurse should face some kind of temporary administrative action while the state builds its disciplinary case. He says that would prevent the nurse from finding another job, while still protecting his or her due process rights.

Sullivan County Deputy District Attorney Gene Perrin is pushing the state to take emergency action more often to suspend licenses. We found the nursing board took emergency action just three times in the last year.

“We’re dealing for the most part with addicts and just because I’m fired from Hospital A most likely is not going to make me quit using drugs,” Perrin said.

He says nurses should face the same consequences lawyers face in his field. According to Perrin, when an attorney’s accused of diverting money from a trust fund they’re suspended, pending the results of an investigation.

“The diversion of money out of a trust fund or out of a trust account that a lawyer practices with is minimal or is far less significant than an individual that is putting their lives in the hands of a medical professional,” Perrin said.

Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner says people who are not considered emergency threats are entitled to due process. The agency says that process becomes complicated and lengthy when those people don’t cooperate.

“It can take some time to make an adequate case that will result in disciplinary action,” Dr. Dreyzehner said.

The Department of Health reports it has taken steps to minimize future delays. Sen. Crowe says that’s a good first step, but he says legislators and the Department of Health owe it to patients to do more.

“You’ve got to protect the patient,” Sen. Crowe said. “I think we may need legislative action. It comes down to the General Assembly to look at this, working with the department, to see if we can put in place something that’s a little more protective of our public.”

Sen. Crowe says the committee hearing will likely occur in the next few weeks.

“We cannot speculate on future legislative hearings about the health licensure process,” Tennessee Department of Health Communication and Media Relations Associate Director Bill Christian said about Sen. Crowe’s called hearing. “We have worked with many legislators in the past on health-related topics and will continue to do so in the future.”

Copyright WJHL 2016. All rights reserved.

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