Nurses with histories of drug use, crime or neglect obtain licenses and find jobs because of flaws in the state system of background checks.
Leslie Anderson had no reason to distrust the nurse she let into her home to care for her 4-year-old daughter, who requires around-the-clock medical attention for a rare disease that has left her a quadriplegic and unable to talk.
Five months later, Anderson caught the nurse, Kelli Ingalls, stealing her daughter’s pain medication.
Anderson did not know until contacted by the Star Tribune that Ingalls had a drug history that included methamphetamine abuse and a county finding that Ingalls maltreated a child by allegedly operating a meth lab in her home.
“That’s something that should obviously be in someone’s background check,” Anderson said.
What happened to Anderson and her daughter reveals how gaps in the state’s system for background checks prevent employers and patients from learning the full history of nurses who have committed crimes, neglect or maltreatment, a Star Tribune examination of Nursing Board and criminal records shows.
Nurses can practice for years before their past troubles catch up with them, because the responsibility for vetting caregivers is split between the Department of Human Services and the Minnesota Board of Nursing. Even when these nurses have lied about their backgrounds, the board typically takes disciplinary action only when they commit more misconduct.
As a result, patients and their families have little access to the records of the nurses caring for them.
“Obviously, had I known [about Ingalls], I would have never let her into my home,” Anderson said.
State Sen. Kathy Sheran said she will examine whether the public should be able to learn more about the backgrounds of nurses as part of an investigation she is launching into the Nursing Board.
“The public has a right to have information so they can make good decisions about who they have as their caregivers,” said Sheran, DFL-Mankato, and a former nurse. “That has to be the priority, over taking care of the license holder.”
Licensing a criminal
Nearly all health care providers licensed by the state are required to conduct background checks on new hires who will provide direct care. Those checks are done by the Department of Human Services, which is obligated to disqualify caregivers from direct patient contact if they have committed certain serious crimes. But DHS concedes that the background checks fall short of catching all prior misconduct.
“We know that our current system of notifying us is not adequate,” Jerry Kerber, DHS’s inspector general, said last week.
The Nursing Board does not run criminal background checks. It asks license applicants about trouble in their past, but it does not inquire further if the applicants deny it.
Some nurses have taken advantage of the honor system.
Michael L. Allison obtained his Minnesota license in 2008 after writing “No” on his application when asked if he had ever committed a crime, despite convictions for deceptive practices and theft in Illinois, according to a Nursing Board report. By May 2011, allegations that he had stolen drugs from his workplaces had cost him nursing licenses in Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, according to reports from boards there.