Drug-addicted health care workers able to get crimes expunged from record

WASHINGTON COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – The same doctor, nurse or other health care worker who steals drugs and gets high on the job can get the crime removed from their record in Tennessee and Washington County Assistant District Attorney Erin McArdle thinks it needs to stop.

“The people in this position should have more accountability and it should stay on their record, so that not only the public knows, but future employers,” McArdle said.

McArdle said the law should hold medical professionals to a higher standard. The prosecutor said when health care workers steal drugs, they have the same rights to get their crimes expunged as a person who forges a prescription or a patient who visits multiple doctors hoping to score prescriptions.

“If there’s nothing on their criminal record, then the person could be put in that position of trust again,” McArdle said.

Judicial diversion benefitted Nikki Willis. The nurse accepted full responsibility for stealing and then injecting drugs. She diverted narcotics for more than a year while working at Johnson City Medical Center, according to her license suspension order. She also pleaded guilty to obtaining narcotics by fraud in court and bared her soul at her sentencing hearing last month.

“I am truly sorry for what I did,” Willis said. “I don’t want to downplay what I did, because it was horrible. I’m just happy today to be alive. I’m happy today to be sober and I’m happy that I can be the person I am today because of this.”

In letters, more than a dozen supporters urged the judge to give Willis a second chance. Her letters of support from family, friends and supervisors informed the judge she was successfully battling addiction, gainfully employed and has no plans to work around drugs again. Willis, through her attorney, declined an interview. Her nursing license is on probation for at least three years while she receives treatment, according to state records.

In the end, Judge Lisa Rice sentenced Willis to supervised probation, requiring her to participate and complete treatment programs and pass random drug screens. In addition, the judge ruled as long as Willis stays out of trouble, the court will expunge the crime from her record at the end of 2019.

McArdle opposed diversion in Willis’ case and pledged to do the same in every one that follows. She said the ability to expunge this kind of a crime from a person’s record is especially concerning when you consider our original investigation found drug-addicted medical workers who were able to find new jobs despite prior problems. McArdle said that has continued in the months after our original report.

Sen. Rusty Crowe (R), District 3, led the effort to change state law following our investigation. The chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee said he understands where McArdle is coming from and has requested further study.

“Certainly, the health care providers should be held to a higher standard,” Sen. Crowe said. “When you have that, I think judicial diversion is probably not proper. I think we should probably distinguish between the two. Our attorneys in Nashville are looking at it already and we’ll see where it goes.”

Sullivan County Deputy District Attorney Gene Perrin said he doesn’t always oppose diversion in drug diversion cases, but instead takes them on a case-by-case basis.

Our original Community Watchdog investigation resulted in a new state law that requires health care workers who fail drug tests to receive treatment or face license suspension.

Copyright WJHL 2017. All rights reserved.

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