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Nursing board needs a checkup

A sad and startling picture is painted by this week's series of Portland Tribune articles detailing how Oregon investigates and deals with problems and complaints in nursing care.

The articles were researched over three months and written by Tribune reporter Peter Korn. They offer too many examples and too much evidence to conclude anything but this: The Oregon State Board of Nursing's process for investigating complaints and continuing to license nurses is broken.

While we believe that almost all nurses licensed in Oregon are doing their jobs well, a handful of nurses clearly are not. But often, they are allowed to continue caring for patients.

Some of these nurses engage in theft and abuse of medications intended for patients. Others neglect or mistreat patients, or fail to correctly administer medications. A few nurses steal patients' personal belongings.

Unfortunately, some nurses commit such violations over and over again. Yet they continue to work without having their licenses suspended while an investigation is conducted. In some cases, their licenses aren't even revoked after an investigation concludes that they are guilty of wrongful behavior.

The problem has grown so severe that officials from law enforcement and health agencies say the Oregon State Board of Nursing does not fully cooperate when it comes to assisting outside investigations into nursing complaints Ñ including criminal investigations. We can only deduce that the state Board of Nursing Ñ a state-mandated group of seven nurses and two citizens, all appointed by the governor Ñ favors the protection of nurses over the safety of Oregonians served by nurses.

The bias must change, and it requires the intervention of Gov. Ted Kulongoski. The governor should immediately enact changes in the oversight, accountability and practices of the nursing board. Such steps should include:

• Increasing the governor's supervision of the board. Without that oversight, the board, which is largely a peer group, is autonomous in regulating its own nurses. The governor's involvement should extend well beyond appointing the board to include helping to set priorities and requiring accountability.

• Utilization of third-party investigators, such as the state attorney general's office, to conduct investigations into nursing complaints. Indiana does this, and it works well. Once an investigation is completed, the nursing board would make its ruling.

• Immediate suspension of the licenses of nurses who are under investigation for the most serious allegations. Employers could be required to continue to pay the nurses while an investigation is completed within a required period of time.

• Routinely and formally consulting with other state, federal and local agencies to ensure that the nursing board is cooperating to protect patient safety and is fully investigating complaints against nurses.

• Requiring the board to make available an annual report to the governor and the public regarding the actions taken by the Board of Nursing to provide for the safest and best nursing care of Oregonians.

It is time for the governor to require Ñ and the Legislature to support Ñ changes in the makeup, operation and public accountability of the Oregon State Board of Nursing. By doing so, the state not only will serve the health and safety needs of its citizens, but also will aid the vast number of nurses who do their best to care for patients' needs.