State system let addicted nurse work for 15 years

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE
  • Star Tribune
  • November 3, 2011 - 1:49 PM

Nurse Jerold L. Mullins was good at stealing drugs from hospitals or other employers and never getting punished by state regulators -- even though the state knew he had a problem.

Over a period of at least 15 years, Mullins endangered patients by treating them while he was high on drugs he pilfered during the course of his work as a nurse anesthetist, according to a consent order recently made public by the Minnesota Board of Nursing.

Mullins' addiction became so insidious that during the course of his duties he administered more drugs than necessary to patients because that meant "there would be more for him to divert," according to state records.

"People would tell him his patients were so much calmer than anybody else's," the report said.

It's not clear where Mullins worked because the Nursing Board report did not identify any of his employers. Mullins, 59, lives in Princeton.

Mullins' improper behavior didn't come under the scrutiny of state regulators until 2010, when he voluntarily informed the board about his past drug abuse, employment problems and current efforts to obtain treatment in license renewal forms.

It was Mullins' third trip through a treatment system sponsored by the state through the Health Professionals Services Program, which touts itself as an "alternative to board discipline." Under state law, health practitioners and their employers must report drug abuse to their licensing board or the program, according to HPSP's website.

"Most choose HPSP because HPSP is supportive and non-disciplinary," according to a quote on the site attributed to Monica Feider, who oversees the program. Feider did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

"It certainly is a concern that he was ... not reported to the board earlier," said Shirley Brekken, executive director of the Board of Nursing. "He did self-report to the board when asked of him. It certainly is important for the board to get the information to be able to carry out an investigation and take action."

Once the board knew of Mullins' troubles, it reviewed his case and revoked his license. He can reapply for his license in five years as long as he can prove he has remained drug-free for 24 consecutive months, according to the consent order finalized in October.

The case raises questions about how HPSP deals with medical workers who fail to successfully kick their addictions. In the past, the program has expelled medical professionals when they failed to complete drug treatment. Some of those workers were later disciplined for those lapses by state licensing boards, according to previously published reports.

Nurses make up about 60 percent of those who use the program, which has received a total of about 5,000 referrals since it was created in 1994. About 600 health professionals are in the program now, according to the HPSP website.

According to the Nursing Board, Mullins first entered the state treatment program in 1995, when a hospital caught him stealing fentanyl, a highly addictive pain reliever far more potent than morphine. He successfully completed treatment and avoided using drugs for two years, but he lapsed back into drug and alcohol abuse within months, according to state records.

In 1999, a patient died because Mullins and a colleague allegedly botched a medical procedure. The case was settled for $475,000, but the Nursing Board did not take any disciplinary action against Mullins, according to the order. Public records do not indicate that drugs played a role.

In 2001, Mullins entered the state treatment program for the second time after he "again diverted fentanyl for personal use and performed procedures on patients while under the use of fentanyl,'' according to the state report.

The program stopped monitoring Mullins' drug use in 2004, after he successfully completed three years of monitoring. But he resumed his drug use in 2004 or 2005. In 2008, Mullins went to work for a different anesthesia group that required all new employees to pass a drug screen, but the company failed to test Mullins until 2010, when he was fired after testing positive for fentanyl and ketamine, an anesthetic that has hallucinogenic effects.

Brekken said there is nothing in the record that shows any of Mullins' employers reported his drug problems to the Nursing Board. She said board members are "very concerned" that a case like this could go on for so long without the board's knowledge and indicates that serious cases like this should be reported. "The fact this individual diverted the number of times he did put the public at risk," she said.

A change last year to the renewal application has led to more self-reporting and helped catch never-reported cases like Mullins, Brekken said. That was what tripped up Mullins, who responded to the board's request to disclose past violations when he filled out his license renewal form, according to his wife, Mary Ann. Mullins declined to comment.

"He said, 'Well, I'm going to answer them honestly and see what happens,' " she said.

She said her husband knew of at least one person who had been through treatment who was "told not to be honest," but she didn't elaborate.

Whistleblower reporter Jane Friedmann contributed to this report.

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777

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