Investigators: Nursing license loophole - My29 WFTC Minneapolis-St. Paul

Investigators: Nursing license loophole

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There is a loophole that can allow people with criminal records to become licensed nurses.

It's a simple yes or no answer to this question: "Have you ever been convicted, entered a plea of guilty, no lo contendere, or no contest, for any felony, gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor offense?"

Every year, about 50,000 people who we trust to care for the sick and vulnerable have to answer that question to get or renew their nursing license in Minnesota. So, how does the state check to see if people are being honest?

"Well, it is a self-disclosure," said Shirley Brekken, executive director of the state's Nursing Board.

According to Brekken, the Minnesota Nursing Board doesn't do a separate background check to verify the answers are truthful. When asked for an estimate of how many people may lie on the application, Brekken said, "I'd only speculate about that."

The FOX 9 Investigators found it does happen. Consider the case of Jessica Baird. Records show Baird answered "no" to the convictions question when she renewed her license in 2011.

By the time Baird filled out that application, she was under police investigation for stealing painkillers from a patient at a hospital where she worked. The stolen pills were discovered in Baird's purse after she caused a car accident that injured her and another driver.

Baird didn't have to disclose the active police investigation on her license renewal application, but she should have reported past convictions, including one for a DWI and another for disorderly conduct.

FOX 9 asked Baird to explain the omissions. Her attorney said she had no comment.

In April, Baird pled guilty to the hospital drug theft, as well as a related DWI and careless driving charge. The nursing board was alerted and suspended her license for 18 months.

There's also the case of Bert Sieler, a licensed practical nurse who worked at an assisted living home in Minneapolis before ending up in federal court.

Sieler was caught stealing over 400 Percocet pills from two residents in his care. He admitted switching the meds with ordinary Tylenol. One of his victims was in so much pain that a relative said she would "cry daily and lost sleep".

Sieler pled guilty to selling the stolen Percocet at a bar for $10 per pill. He told police he was planning to use the money to buy a second home.

Months before Sieler got busted, he renewed his nursing license. The FOX 9 Investigators obtained a copy of his application and found he too answered "no" to the criminal record question despite the fact he had previous convictions for a DWI and later for driving after revocation.

Once the nursing board was alerted to Sieler's latest bout with the law, his license was revoked too.

A criminal history doesn't necessarily preclude someone from getting a nursing license, but it can tip off regulators to take a closer look to see if that person can be trusted as a care giver.

In the state of Kansas, they started conducting FBI fingerprint checks on nursing hopefuls in 2008 after they found a prison escapee had stolen a nurse's identity and obtained a license to work.

"We were finding that a lot of our applicants weren't being truthful," said Mary Blubaugh, nursing board director in Kansas.

Even after the criminal record checks became standard operating procedure, the Kansas Nursing Board found a huge number of applicants were still lying about their past.

"Twenty-nine percent had a criminal history that was not disclosed on their initial application," added Blubaugh.

Right now, Minnesota is one of only 14 states that doesn't mandate criminal history checks before handing out a nursing license. Brekken said the Minnesota state nursing board doesn't have the resources to do those criminal checks, but the board does recognize that's something that needs to change.

A change would require a change in state law and funding to pay for it. Until that happens, the board relies on tips to let it know when an applicant has been less-than-forthcoming about a criminal record.

That's why it recently reprimanded George Obara, a registered nurse. He failed to disclose a 2007 conviction for hitting his wife and pushing her out of a moving car at 55 miles an hour.

Obara told the FOX 9 Investigators he answered "no" to the conviction question on his renewal application by mistake, but the nursing board didn't buy his excuse and fined him $1,500.

The Minnesota legislature did set aside some money this past session to study the background check issue. That could pave the way for a new law, making them mandatory next year.

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