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Nurse discipline due for a change

ST. PAUL — State regulators may treat nurses too leniently, a key Minnesota senator said after a Wednesday legislative committee meeting looked into nurse discipline issues.

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Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, a nurse herself, said she is concerned that the Minnesota Nursing Board leans too far toward nurses when deciding if they violate state laws and rules.

“I intend to be a little tougher on license holders,” Sheran said.

Sheran and the other co-chairwoman of the meeting, Rep. Tiny Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said they hope the Office of Legislative Auditor can investigate the issue.

“I still have a number of questions,” Sheran said.

Liebling and Sheran praised suggestions that nursing regulators gave them Wednesday, including ones that would give the board more investigative power and a greater ability to reject applications.

There seemed to be a consensus that changes are needed in how Minnesota disciplines nurses.

The issue arose after a Minneapolis Star Tribune investigation found the state often has allowed nurses to retain licenses after they committed crimes and neglected or mistreated patients. The investigation, led by reporter Brandon Stahl, found 294 nurses who have criminal convictions in Minnesota that the newspaper said would appear to disqualify them from providing direct care.

Last week, the Department of Human Services said it will disqualify up to 107 of them.

The Star Tribune reported that it found many cases of nurses lying about their history.

Executive Director Shirley Brekken of the state Nursing Board told legislators that the board has taken a number of disciplinary actions this year, ranging from reprimands to revoking licenses.

She said that if a nurse had a conviction years ago, the board needs to consider whether he or she can do the job now. Also, she said, state law does not allow the board to reject a license just because of a past conviction.

Much of the legislative discussion focused on nurses who take patients’ medicine for their own use.

“The board does take action against nurses who divert drugs,” Brekken assured lawmakers, adding that happened in 81 of 108 such allegations last year.

Board President Deborah Haagenson of Park Rapids said that board members “support and welcome the opportunity” to improve their operation.

Board leaders suggested that legislators allow them to place more emphasis on past convictions, especially those related to drugs, when considering whether to grant or revoke a license. The board also wants more authority to reject license applications from sex offenders.

Another idea was to require employers to report to the board any situations where nurses improperly remove drugs.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said it was important to remember that only a few nurses are bad apples: “99 percent of the nurses are not even being discussed today. The hospitals are safe.”

One issue Sheran said concerns her is the difficulty of the public getting information about nurses’ backgrounds.

She said that license-related actions the board takes are public. But she said that not much of the information that goes into the decisions is available to the public, information the senator said could help a family decide if they want a particular nurse.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.