The Minnesota Board of Nursing wants more authority to deny licenses to nurses who have committed crimes and more information about nurses who are stealing drugs from their workplaces, the board’s executive director said during a legislative hearing Wednesday.

But Nursing Board staff members also defended the agency’s disciplinary record in the hearing, which was convened in response to a Star Tribune investigative series into the state’s handling of problem nurses.

“Any organization has room for improvement,” said Rene Cronquist, the Nursing Board’s director of practice and policy. But Cronquist said she believed the board’s actions as a whole “reflect the commitment to ensure that the public receives nursing care from individuals who are safe, ethical and competent.”

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato and chairwoman of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee, said she will explore whether the public should have more access to nurses’ backgrounds.

“So that when I choose my health care provider, do I have adequate data to make a determination about who I want caring for my vulnerable child or my vulnerable adult,” she said.

In an analysis of thousands of Nursing Board records, the Star Tribune has reported how some nurses have kept their licenses despite neglecting patients, stealing drugs from them or practicing while impaired. At the hearing, the Nursing Board gave a general rebuttal to questions about its enforcement record, presenting statistics that show its most common disciplinary action is the removal of a nurse’s license.

“We have to be very careful not to draw conclusions from these articles,” Nursing Board executive director Shirley Brekken said.

Only government officials were invited to speak at Wednesday’s hearing. The lack of testimony from members of the public disappointed Sandi Lubrant, who has helped to form a small group of patient advocates who say their family members were harmed by poor nursing care. Lubrant said her mother was the victim of numerous medication errors by nurses before she died last year.

“I think the people who had a voice today were the people who defended the nurses who have made errors or had complaints levied against them,” Lubrant said after the hearing. “I feel like it’s the providers who have the voice, and the consumers really don’t.”

At the hearing, Brekken indicated that the board would benefit from new laws that would give it more investigative authority, more information about nurses under state monitoring, the ability to take quicker action on problem nurses and an exemption from a law that requires licensure for criminals if they can prove rehabilitation.

Brekken said the board’s authority to take action in some cases has been limited by the law and the lack of timely reporting by employers and other state agencies. That can also lengthen the amount of time it takes for the board to discipline a nurse, she said.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester and chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, seized on that issue as one she would like to address during the legislative session next year.

“I like the idea of speeding things up,” Liebling said. “We’d like to have more quick control over somebody who may be engaging in harm.”

Liebling and Sheran praised the Nursing Board for agreeing to the hearing and said the changes recommended by the board should be drafted as proposed legislation during the next session.

Monica Feider, the program manager for the Health Professionals Services Program, which monitors mentally ill or chemically dependent care providers, defended her program during her testimony. She said monitoring is rigorous and countered the claim of one former nurse interviewed by the Star Tribune by saying participants in state monitoring can hardly ever predict when they must submit to drug testing.

Feider acknowledged that not every problem drug screen by a participant gets reported to licensing boards but said often that isn’t enough evidence to take action against someone’s license.