Special report: Addicted nurses keep licenses

  • Article by: BRANDON STAHL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 4, 2013 - 8:32 AM

Some nurses continue to steal narcotics or practice while impaired under state monitoring that’s supposed to stop them.

Michelle McMahan stole her patients’ pain medications so she could take them herself.

Diana Bjorneberg supported her drug habit by tampering with syringes and putting patients at risk for infection.

Catherine Callaway replaced liquid anesthetics with saline, feeding her addiction while leaving patients to suffer.

They are three of the 112 Minnesota nurses who since 2010 are licensed to practice despite having either stolen narcotics on the job, fraudulently obtained prescriptions, or practiced while impaired by drugs or alcohol, a Star Tribune examination of more than 1,000 Minnesota Board of Nursing disciplinary records has found.

Nearly all of those nurses have kept their licenses by taking part in a state program created to protect the public from health professionals who are alcoholics or drug addicts. To avoid further board action, they have to prove they are sober and getting treatment.

Yet records show that nurses have been able to keep practicing while abusing drugs or alcohol, raising questions about whether the program actually works.

Nurses can spend months under state monitoring while missing or failing drug tests, disciplinary records show. If they are kicked out of the program, it can take months more for the Nursing Board to act. Some nurses have been able to use or steal narcotics while enrolled in the program, records show, while others completed the monitoring but later relapsed.

Former nurse Sue Qualick said she stole painkillers from St. Paul’s Regions Hospital for a year while under state monitoring. “There should have been a red flag for somebody,” Qualick told the Star Tribune. “I don’t think I should have gotten away with it for as long as I did.”

For at least 67 currently licensed nurses, the state monitoring agency, which is called the Health Professionals Services Program (HPSP), has become a revolving door, Nursing Board records show. They have failed out of the program, only to be sent back by the Nursing Board and allowed to keep practicing.

The HPSP manager, Monica Feider, acknowledged that the state program isn’t “foolproof.”

But she said health care professionals with addictions are safer to the public if they are in the program.

“Being monitored, then you know that they’re sober,” Feider said. “There are cases where individuals are using, but I like to believe that those are few and far between.”

When asked if nurses should lose their license if they take medication meant for patients, Nursing Board executive director Shirley Brekken replied: “Substance use disorders are an illness.”

“The concern has to be for the safety of the public, but for the future of the individual as well,” she said.

Giving nurses who are addicts repeated chances puts Minnesota patients at risk, said Dr. Marvin Seppala, the chief medical officer at the drug treatment center Hazelden.

If nurses flout the rules of the state monitoring program, “I think they should have their licenses revoked,” Seppala said. The only way these nurses should get their licenses back is permanent monitoring, Seppala said. That isn’t available in Minnesota.

When told of the Star Tribune’s findings about the state monitoring program, Gov. Mark Dayton said the system sounded “very wrong.”

“There should be consequences,” the governor said. “Somebody who’s using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol or engaging in misconduct or malpractice should understand there’s no place for them in the health care professions.”

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