SULLIVAN COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – Prosecutors say health care workers who divert drugs and put patients at risk are avoiding criminal charges thanks to a system that often protects them from prosecution and allows them to find new jobs.
They’re now demanding mandatory reporting every time a doctor, nurse or other medical professional is suspected of taking drugs on the job. Employers are not required to report medical professionals to police under current state law.
“We want to deter diversion of drugs by professionals,” Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus said. “If there was immediate reporting to law enforcement we could begin to have an effective investigation to determine whether or not they’ve broken the law.”
Lawmakers passed a law last session that improves reporting, but only at the licensing level. The law requires the CEO of a hospital or other health care facility to report all disciplinary action involving drugs or alcohol to the appropriate state licensing board.
“The report must be in writing within (60) days of the disciplinary action and the facility must make available to the board all records related to the disciplinary action,” Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner said in a letter to Staubus. “We believe this legislation is a significant step in ensuring patient safety.”
Although a positive step, Staubus responded to the commissioner’s letter with one of his one, which called for mandatory reporting to law enforcement, similar to Tennessee’s mandatory child abuse reporting law.
“There is no such requirement for the protection of our citizens who are patients of drug addicted medical professionals,” Staubus said in his letter. “The absence of such a reporting requirement for abuse undermines the public’s confidence that doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who commit crimes will be held accountable for their actions.”
Washington County Assistant District Attorney Erin McArdle says she supports mandatory reporting too.
“I would like to also see notification,” McArdle said. “I think when that happens and they are going into drug treatment, especially if (state licensing boards) are interested or looking at an investigation into that individual, authorities need to be notified.”
Rep. John Holsclaw (R), District 4, says he’s willing to take up prosecutors’ cause when lawmakers return to Nashville next session. Prompted by our investigation into disciplinary delays, Rep. Holsclaw helped pass a law last session meant to better protect the public from drug-addicted health care workers, but the Tennessee House Health Committee member acknowledges there’s still more to consider.
“If I witness child abuse, I have to report it to law enforcement. It’s against the law if I don’t. Why not make the same requirement for a doctor or a nurse who is taking drugs away from a patient and putting them in harm?” we asked.
“That’s a very good question and that’s one of the things we’ll address and see if we can’t kind of close the loop on that,” Rep. Holsclaw said. “We’ll continue to take those steps to see if we can’t strengthen that law.”
We first identified concerns about a lack of reporting by some area hospitals in December.
“I hope the legislature sees this as a priority,” Staubus said. “(Medical professionals) should want a law that would clear those people from the ranks, get those people help and hold those people responsible for criminal law violations.”
The law co-sponsored by Rep. Holsclaw last session now requires any medical professional who fails a drug test to either enter treatment or face license suspension. The Tennessee Nurses Association wants to give the new law a chance to work before weighing in on more changes.
“The legislature passed a bill last session outlining the more stringent policy for the reporting of health care providers who have a positive drug test or refuse to take a drug test,” Tennessee Nurses Association Executive Director Sharon Adkins said. “We (TNA) want to give this new law a chance to take effect. We (TNA) would not support a process that circumvents the new law based on a ‘suspicion.'”
The Tennessee Medical Association is taking a different stance when it comes to reporting to law enforcement. While TMA Vice President Dave Chaney said he couldn’t comment specifically without more details, particularly from a law enforcement perspective, he said TMA supports holding physicians accountable.
“Generally speaking, however, from a medical perspective TMA supports increased transparency, reporting and appropriate prosecution for healthcare providers who engage in illicit activities,” he said. “It is in concert with our mission of upholding ethics in the profession, and is imperative for patient safety and quality of care.”
The Tennessee Pharmacists Association said without more specifics, it is unable to fully weigh in.
“Our association would need a bit more information about the proposal before forming an official position,” TPA Executive Director Micah Cost said.
As we reported last week, the chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee asked state attorneys to study another possible change in state law prompted by our reporting. State attorneys are reviewing the current law that allows health care workers who face criminal charges to get their crimes expunged from their record.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced the indictments of two former Johnson City nurses on charges related to drug diversion earlier this week.
Copyright WJHL 2017. All rights reserved.