Special Reports

Nurse-verification safety net exists, but riddled with gaps

Nurse Jeffrey LeMoine stood remorseful in a San Luis Obispo courtroom, waiting to hear his punishment for burning the faces of patients.

He apologized, read from a statement and then walked out after being convicted of practicing medicine without a license and grand theft. He was sentenced to two months in jail and three years of probation and carried a restitution tab of more than $10,000 for at least 25 victims of the laser treatment center where he worked.

Twenty-one days later, he was given a fresh start in another state with a new license.

Maine gave LeMoine the go-ahead to start practicing nursing on March 23, 2007, while he was on probation for the misdemeanor crimes.

“No one at the board knew about the conviction,” said Myra Broadway, executive director of the Maine State Board of Nursing. “The fact is, we’re going to pursue him now ourselves” because of the Tribune’s inquiry, she said.

LeMoine renewed his license online this year, saying he did not have a conviction, Broadway said. And when he originally applied in Oct. 6, 2006, he had not yet been convicted.

He represents the kind of nurse that regulators want to watch closely. And he’s one reason they use the national system called Nursys License Verification — to ensure nurses don’t roam from state to state with unknown disciplinary actions on their license.

But a problem arises when not all states participate in the one-stop national clearinghouse for checking nurses’ licenses.

The national database contains license, discipline and investigative information from state nursing boards. About 23 states share information.

Maine is in the system. California, however, is not.

Had California participated in the national database, Maine might have learned about the criminal charges prosecutors filed against LeMoine in August 2006.

Maine does not check criminal backgrounds of nurses because regulators there don’t have authority to use the national FBI database or a statewide database. They require nurses to self-report convictions, but, as in LeMoine’s case, sometimes that fails.

“We are attempting to get that,” Broadway said of access to government databases for ongoing criminal background checks. “What I really want is that ongoing piece of it. Otherwise, you’re only getting a snapshot of that point in time.”

California not tied in

California’s Board of Registered Nursing does not belong to the national Nursys database because its system is not configured to supply the information required to join, said spokeswoman Heidi Goodman.

And officials with the state Bureau of Licensed Vocational Nurses said they are concerned about certain regulations that would not allow them to discipline a nurse from another state practicing in California through Nursys.

The national system also does not accept a California exam for vocational nurses, and the bureau of vocational nursing does not collect certain information required by Nursys.

Some nursing advocates underscore the importance of having a one-stop, nationally connected system for checking nursing licenses, especially for traveling nurses who practice in hospitals across the country.

“There have been nurses that go from hospital to hospital to hospital to hospital, and just before they get fired they move on to another state and their record sort of gets buried under that,” said Deborah Burger, president of the California Nurses Association, a nurse organization and health care union.

Many hospitals hiring temporary nurses rely on the employment agencies to run criminal background checks. But those agencies often do not check every state for a nurse’s criminal record and work history. And such agencies cannot access national FBI or state Department of Justice databases. Those are restricted to law enforcement agencies.

About a dozen hospitals and 46 temporary staf fing businesses in California use ChoicePoint, a Georgiabased data collection company that searches individual county records when checking criminal backgrounds on nurses.

“No one picks up everything, and part of it isthere are many counties across the U. S. that don’t have their conviction records online,” said ChoicePoint spokesman Chuck Jones. “A background screening service would not know where (someone) lived previously so they would not know to check there.”

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