Nurses who can't shake drug addiction prompt call for improved licensing alerts

  • Article by: BRAD SCHRADE
  • Star Tribune
  • November 3, 2011 - 10:36 AM

State officials are considering reporting the names of nurses and other health professionals who repeatedly cycle through a drug treatment program to their licensing boards.

The change would address the current situation that allows chronic offenders to keep treating patients without regulators being aware of the potential dangers.

In the past year, the Minnesota Board of Nursing has expressed frustration that some nurses have been through the Health Professionals Services Program (HPSP) multiple times without the board's knowledge. That situation was underscored by a recent case involving a nurse anesthetist who, over a 15-year period, stole drugs from his employers and treated patients while he was high.

Jerold L. Mullins went through the state-operated treatment program three times, but the HPSP never notified the board because the state doesn't require such reports.

The Nursing Board said Mullins was allowed to keep practicing despite reckless behavior that endangered his patients. The board revoked his license last month only after Mullins voluntarily disclosed his troubled history when he tried to renew his license in 2010.

HPSP program manager Monica Feider said Wednesday there are not many repeat nursing offenders like Mullins.

While the number is "pretty small,'' Feider said the Nursing Board's request for a policy change has given her group cause to look at the issue. Feider added that "it's not a decision we would make without a lot of consideration and input from our stakeholders."

Altogether, Feider said, about 25 percent of the individuals in the treatment program have been through at least once. She said many either flunked out and were referred back to the state program by a licensing board or they suffered a relapse after completing years of monitoring.

About 5,000 medical workers have been referred to the program since its creation in 1994. About 80 percent are dealing with some form of addiction, including drugs and alcohol, Feider said. The program also treats workers who have depression, anxiety and other mental conditions.

The treatment program was created by the Legislature to encourage health professionals to seek help if they suffered from problems that could affect their work. The program touts itself as a "supportive and non-disciplinary" alternative to punitive actions by health licensing boards. Other states have similar programs.

Central to the approach is an agreement that ensures confidentiality for those who seek to live up to the program requirements, including monthly drug screening for those with drug addiction.

Feider said the nonpunitive approach has led to more participants than initially expected. She said she doesn't want to discourage addicted nurses and doctors from seeking help.

"When the program was developed, I don't think the boards or anyone felt people would self-report at the rate that they are reporting," Feider said. "I see that as a very positive thing. With that, we're able to intervene before public safety is compromised."

That wasn't the case with Mullins, who administered more drugs than his patients needed so he could more easily divert them for himself, according to the consent order finalized last month. Mullins' employers, who were not named in the disciplinary report released last month, did not report the violations, said Shirley Brekken, the Nursing Board's executive director.

Brekken said the public was put at risk by Mullins' ability to continue practicing as a nurse for as long as he did. She said the board should be told about these type of repeat offenders so it can react.

"Health professionals will often hide their illness for a long time because of fear of losing their license and losing their livelihood," Brekken said. "The major assumption of the program is if you remove that fear, [then the] individuals will [self] report much earlier and get treatment and be monitored. That's the balance you try to strike. When impairment issues are such that the public is at risk, then the earlier the board knows the more quickly the board is able to take action."

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777

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