A bill containing several measures to give the Minnesota Board of Nursing more authority over problem nurses passed a key Senate committee on Wednesday, despite opposition from two licensing boards and the state’s largest nursing union.

If the bill passes, the Nursing Board would be able to automatically suspend the licenses of nurses if they are discharged from a state drug and mental illness monitoring program. The board would also get earlier notice if a nurse has been caught stealing drugs, would be forbidden from granting licenses to felons convicted of sex assault and would become the third licensing board to be completely exempted from the state’s criminal rehabilitation act.

The proposals presented to the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee follow a Star Tribune series last fall which revealed that nurses who have stolen drugs, lied about their criminal histories and harmed patients were allowed to continue to practice.

Those stories led to a legislative hearing in November in which the Nursing Board was asked to identify ways to improve its disciplinary process.

“I believe this bill addresses some of those gaps, not all,” Nursing Board Executive Director Shirley Brekken said.

Some who testified at the hearing warned that proposed changes to require more disclosure about participants in the state drug monitoring program could discourage health professionals from enrolling. Julia Donnelly, public policy specialist with the Minnesota Nurses Association, said it could also prevent addicted nurses from being honest with the monitoring program if they know that information will be reported to the Nursing Board.

Representatives from the Boards of Pharmacy and Dentistry said they were also leery of a proposed requirement to immediately suspend any health professional who was discharged from the state monitoring program. Those groups said the decision to suspend should be up to the licensing boards, not the monitoring program.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, also questioned whether due process rights would be violated under that proposal.

The chairwoman of the committee and author of the nursing bill, Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said nurses discharged from the program were not making it a priority to maintain their licenses.

“The critical message here is that this is a provision to strengthen the capacity of the board to protect the public,” she said.