The Minnesota Board of Nursing took steps on Thursday to strengthen its oversight of problem nurses, voting to speed up its disciplinary process and to ask the Legislature for more authority to investigate and punish violations.

Meeting for the first time since the Star Tribune began publishing stories about its record of disciplining nurses, the Nursing Board identified at least 13 ways it could get tougher on nurses who harm patients, steal drugs or commit crimes.

Most of the discussion was focused on seeking new power, despite recent criticism from Gov. Mark Dayton that they are failing to use the authority they already have. The governor described the board as "asleep at the switch" after the Star Tribune stories revealed that some nurses who harmed patients, stole drugs or lied about their criminal histories are still allowed to practice.

Board members did not directly address that criticism Thursday, but Nursing Board President Deborah Haagenson said its members and staff "are committed to their mission" of protecting the public.

"Characterizations to the contrary are simply not accurate and certainly not helpful," she said.

The Minnesota Board of Nursing, the state's largest health licensing board, has 16 members, 12 of them nurses, all of whom are appointed by the governor to oversee the licenses of more than 115,000 nurses.

On Thursday, the Nursing Board voted unanimously to meet almost every month to consider disciplinary cases, up from every other month, in an effort to shorten the time it takes to sanction nurses.

Among the new laws it will seek, the board wants the authority to sanction a nurse who has failed a state monitoring program for health care professionals with substance abuse or mental problems. Currently, the board has to prove that a nurse discharged from that program has returned to substance abuse before it can take disciplinary action, according to Nursing Board Executive Director Shirley Brekken.

The board also agreed to support legislation that would exempt nurses from portions of the Minnesota Criminal Rehabilitation Act. That law directs nearly all state licensing boards to allow professionals with convictions to practice if they can show they have been rehabilitated. Some boards already have exemptions that let them deny licenses to providers convicted of felony sex crimes.

Brekken noted the Nursing Board unsuccessfully sought an exemption in 2011.

"Now we are recognizing the impact of not having that," she said.

In order to detect drug-related misconduct, the board also wants to view the prescription histories of nurses who are under investigation. Currently, nurses have to provide written permission to the board to see those records.

Those proposals will be taken to the Legislature in January.

State Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, who heads the committee that oversees the board, said Thursday she will likely support some of the measures, but that it's too early to predict their chances. She said lawmakers may want to await the results of a proposed legislative audit of the Nursing Board. While still unapproved, the audit has support from Sheran, her counterpart in the House and the governor.

Other proposed changes will be discussed at upcoming Nursing Board meetings, including increasing the number of board members who represent the public, collaborating with other state agencies on investigations and getting full access to records maintained by the state monitoring program.

Currently, nurses who voluntarily enroll in the monitoring program are not reported to the Nursing Board.

"I think that's not the way it should be," Nursing Board Vice President Stuart Williams said.

Brandon Stahl • 612-673-4626