JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – The Tennessee Board of Nursing isn’t just letting some drug-addicted nurses from our area hold onto their licenses for extended periods of time. Public records suggest the state delayed action in similar cases in other parts of the state too.
Records show it took three years for the nursing board to take action against a nurse in Memphis. According to her complaint, a Memphis hospital alerted the Tennessee Department of Health with allegations in February 2013, which included that the woman’s drug test came back positive for Morphine and Lortab. Records show while she denied the allegations, the hospital fired her that month.
Public records show the woman secured a new job at another Memphis hospital a month later. In December 2013 she tested positive again for opiates and the hospital fired her the next month, according to state documents. Records show her nursing license expired in April 2015. The board took formal action in February 2016.
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee is scheduled to hold a special hearing to address the findings of our original investigation on December 8. Committee Chairman Sen. Rusty Crowe (R), District 3, called the hearing after seeing the results of our investigation.
Sen. Crowe says in the month since we exposed the problem, he, representatives of the Department of Health and Board of Nursing and staff attorneys have discussed ways to improve the process.
“Everyone I’ve talked to has said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is really happening?'” Sen. Crowe said of our findings. “We’re going to have to find ways to make sure that those who are in that situation that are dealing with patients, we protect the patients and at the same time protect due process of a nurse or any practitioner while they’re being investigated.”
Sen. Crowe says ahead of next month’s hearing, he’s asked state employees to research the issue further.
“I’ve sent them all back and told them to come up with some recommendations that they think might work and at the same time, look at other states,” he said. “If we all work together we can figure this out.”
State records suggest delays in at least four other cases in other parts of the state over the last year.
A nurse from Middle Tennessee, who previously participated in a treatment program, admitted to taking drugs from a healthcare facility while on duty in December 2013. In January she found a new job where she later tested positive for morphine and then secured another job that summer where she was eventually fired for trying to drugs, her board order revealed. The state revoked her license in November 2015.
We were unable to obtain copies of the original complaints or the dates of those complaints involving her and a handful of other nurses, because the Department of Health is “not authorized by statute to share complaint or allegation reports filed prior to formal charges being filed,” which “includes when a report was first filed.” That means we don’t know when the nurses’ former employers first alerted the state, but we do know when the reported drug diversion began and when the state took disciplinary action.
“There have been discussions on ways to improve the process,” Tennessee Department of Health Communications and Media Relations Associate Director Bill Christian said.
The Department of Health has said cases become especially lengthy when nurses deny drug diversion. State law also requires the agency try and help rehabilitate those nurses, which can also lead to delays, particularly when rehab fails. Our investigation found only a few cases where the state took emergency action to suspend nurses’ license in the last year.
While the state is looking at improving its process after diversion occurs, Mountain States Health Alliance’s hospitals in Washington County are looking at ways to better protect patients before diversion occurs.
Franklins Woods Community Hospital CEO Lindy White says those hospitals have started a pilot program called the Controlled Substance Stewardship Committee. She says the committee is a group of pharmacists, nurses, physicians and human resources representatives who are focused on making sure hospitals have the proper processes in place to prevent drug diversion, catch it when it does occur and most importantly, keep patients safe at all times. White says the group has met twice.
“We’re constantly looking at additional gaps and measures we can put in place to ensure that we have the most minimal risk of diversion inside our facilities for the safety of our patients,” White said. “We take drug diversion very seriously. We want to protect the safety and quality inside our facilities for our patients.”
The committee’s efforts are on top of technology hospitals have used for years to help secure and track patient medications.
“The technology’s been there, but we’re fine tuning our processes to do a better job of tracking the activity,” White said.
White says Mountain States’ hospitals in Washington County are also trying to create a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable self-reporting a possible addiction problem, so the health system can help those people recover.
White says in addition to treatment, there needs to be more of a focus on prevention and education, and that’s across all professions. She says the key is to prevent addiction before people start their careers.
“I feel strongly that drug diversion is a symptom of what’s growing to be a bigger problem in the region,” White said. “It’s my strong feeling that we have to address this further on the front end prior to diversion.”
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