Recent Changes to the Texas Peer Assistance Program for Nurses

In the past year-and-a-half there have been several changes to the Texas Peer Assistance Program for Nurses (TPAPN). First, the length of participation has been increased from two years to three years for RNs and LVNs and three to five years for nurse practitioners and CRNAs. This change brings TPAPN more in line with the other official peer assistance programs for health care professionals in Texas such as the Texas Physician Health Program and Professional Recovery Network.

Another important change has been the Board’s move towards offering confidential TPAPN orders in certain cases. Previously, the Board had the option to either refer a nurse to TPAPN directly or enter a public order requiring the nurse to enroll. For cases raising moderate to severe public safety concerns or where the nurse had previously participated in TPAPN, the Board was highly unlikely to agree to a TPAPN referral without a public order. Now such cases can be settled through a non-public order accomplishing the same result. This is a good option in many cases as it allows the nurse to avoid a public order which would follow them for the rest of their careers.

More recently, TPAPN has initiated a new program for nurses with marginal mental health issues comparable to the Extended Evaluation Program (EEP) available to nurses who may have misused a mind-altering substance but lack a DSM-V substance abuse or chemical dependency diagnosis. Like EEP, the new mental health track is a one year commitment, confidential, and not considered to be disciplinary. Typically the participant is only required to regularly meet with their mental health provider who is expected to supply periodic status reports to TPAPN. My experience thus far has been that clients with minor mental health issues or diagnoses in long-term remission are most likely to be accepted.

Given these new developments it is more important than ever for a nurse to contact an experienced attorney to discuss their options if they have been asked or are considering participation in TPAPN. The changes outlined above offer new possibilities for resolution which were not previously available. It takes a lawyer familiar with the Board and TPAPN to know what might be available to a nurse and how to navigate the system to achieve the best result. The increased length of the standard TPAPN contract makes it all the more important for a nurse to seek knowledgeable counsel rather than proceed on their own.

Texas Board of Nursing's Pre-Approved Evaluator List: What Every Texas Nurse Should Know

 

In cases involving possible alcohol/controlled substance abuse or mental health issues, the Texas Board of Nursing frequently asks nurses to submit to a forensic psychological evaluation and polygraph examination. This standard letter also contains a list of pre-approved evaluators and polygraph examiners. Any nurse who receives such a request should immediately stop and call an attorney with experience practicing before the Texas Board of Nursing.

 

The psychologists and psychiatrists referenced on this pre-approved list are there solely because they have a history of providing one-sided reports supporting whatever disciplinary measures the Board is considering imposing on your license. During the past decade I have represented approximately one thousand nurses before the Texas Board of Nursing. Throughout this period I have never seen an evaluation performed by a professional on the pre-approved list that is favorable to the nurse. This includes individuals whose entire history involves one or two DWIs or misdemeanor marijuana charges from two or more decades ago.

 

The bulk of these questionable evaluations are performed by two forensic psychologists in Richardson Texas. When reading an evaluation by one of these evaluators, I am frequently shocked by the vast leap between the verifiable facts in a given case, the results from the relevant forensic tests (such as the SASSI), and the final recommendations of the Board evaluators. Regardless of whether or not it is objectively justified, this recommendation is typically for revocation, referral to TPAPN, or the imposition of a long period of Board monitoring.

 

For example, one recent case involved a nurse with a ten-year old deferred adjudication involving possession of methamphetamines. Despite ten intervening years of incident-free nursing practice, my client’s successful completion of five years of community supervision (including the provision of five years of clean drug screens), and no other evidence of a problem, one of the above-referenced doctors wrote an evaluation finding that the nurse was an addict, unfit to practice nursing, and that the Board should seek to revoke her license. At this point the nurse felt the situation was so hopeless she had already sent started voluntarily surrendering to the Board; however, thanks to a last minute call to my office, I was able to rescind her surrender and ultimately have her case dismissed without any disciplinary action.

 

I have previously blogged about the Board’s use of polygraph examinations on this site which I urge you to read. The bottom line is that despite being scientifically invalid and clearly inadmissible in court, the Board continues to request polygraph exams. This is presumably so that their pre-approved evaluators can then use the questionable results to claim that a nurse was lying or overly defensive during the examination. Yet, even in the rare instance where the nurse obtains a clean polygraph, the forensic psychologist’s evaluation is invariably still negative.

 

Any nurse who receives a request from the Board that they should submit to a forensic evaluation and polygraph exam should immediately contact an attorney with experience before the Texas Board of Nursing. You need to know your rights including the ability to refuse the polygraph exam and request an evaluator not on the pre-approved list. By seeing one of the Board’s evaluators and polygraph examiners you place your nursing license at significant risk. A negative report will have to be rebutted, likely through a second evaluation by a neutral and better credentialed evaluator. Even then there is still a disfavorable evaluation out there raising an issue as to your fitness to practice.

 

I sincerely urge you to contact a lawyer prior to simply acceding to the request. More is at stake than you might think and you shouldn’t go ahead without some advice from someone other than the agency who holds authority over your license.

Enough is Enough: Texas Board of Nursing Pursuit of Licensees Following Criminal Acquittal

 

Recently I have represented several nurses before the Texas Board of Nursing who were being pursued by Board Staff for allegations for which they had already been acquitted by the criminal justice system. As one would expect, this quasi-double jeopardy is extremely frustrating to the nurse. Despite already having hired a criminal lawyer and clearing their name in criminal court, they must now hire a license defense attorney to do the same thing before the Board of Nursing.

 

The most recent example, involved a case where the nurse had been accused of an inappropriate touching by a ten year old girl. The girl claimed that she had awaken at a sleep over at the client’s house to discover the nurse touching her; however, there were several inconsistencies with the girl’s testimony and it later came out that she was friends with another young girl who had made the exact same allegation (down to every detail) against my client several years prior but had subsequently admitted to her mother that she had made it up.

 

At the close of the nurse’s criminal trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Moreover, Child Protective Services had conducted their own investigation into the matter and determined that nothing had occurred. Yet, despite his acquittal and the negative finding by Child Protective Services, the Texas Board of Nursing decided to pursue their own disciplinary action against my client, seeking the revocation of his nursing license.

 

Thankfully, my firm was able to enforce the expunction order which had previously been entered by the criminal court to prevent the Board from using second-hand records from that trial to prove their case. Instead, the Board of Nursing was forced to bring the girl to testify in person at a hearing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Based on conflicting testimony from our witnesses and several discrepancies between the girl’s original outcry and her testimony at the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge concluded that the Board of Nursing had not met their burden of proof and accordingly entered an opinion favorable to the nurse.

 

I understand that the Board has a mission to protect the public from bad nurses; nevertheless, at some point one has to think that enough is enough. A person should only have to clear their name so many times before it is reasonable for the Board to think twice about wasting state money to retry a licensee for the same conduct.

 

The underlying lesson is that simply because you received a not guilty verdict in criminal court or the District Attorney decided not to prosecute, you are not shielded from a licensure action by the Texas Board of Nursing. They frequently subject a nurse licensee to yet another legal action where they are forced to again clear their name or face severe restrictions on, or even termination, of their livelihood. If you are facing such a situation with the Texas Board of Nursing, I highly recommend that you contact a seasoned administrative attorney with experience before the Texas Board of Nursing and the State Office of Administrative Hearings as otherwise you could be risking your license.

Board of Nursing Overreaches Mandate in Pursuit of Ancient Criminal History

 

As most Texas nurses are now aware, the Texas Board of Nursing has for several years been performing criminal background checks as part of the renewal process. Each year a certain number of nurses who are up for renewal are required to submit fingerprints for an FBI background check. Those persons who lack any criminal history or who have previously disclosed that history to the Board need not worry. However, any licensees who do have an undisclosed criminal matter, even a minor one, should be concerned as the Board will likely use that record as an excuse to open an investigation and vigorously probe for any history or other indications that they feel indicates the person may lack fitness to practice nursing. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the Board’s policy is that they will apply the same searching examination no matter how old or miniscule the criminal record.

 

As an example, I recently served as the attorney for the spouse of a former client, who is also a nurse. His issue was that he recently received a letter from a Board investigator stating that a twenty year old arrest for misdemeanor possession of marijuana had popped up during his renewal background check and that they were opening an investigation based on it. The charge was so old that my client didn’t even remember it which is also the reason he had not disclosed it the Board. The arrest in fact is so old that it predates his entrance into nursing school. Furthermore, the fact that only an arrest showed up indicates that the local prosecutor likely decided that the matter was so minor that it did not warrant prosecution. Yet, the Board’s desire to pursue this old charge meant that he had to contact me and I dutifully sent a not so nice letter to the Board telling them to back off.

 

Essentially the Board is wasting state tax dollars and subjecting veteran nurses to searching and oftentimes humiliating investigations on the basis of decades-old minor criminal offenses which likely committed before the person was even licensed. This goes well beyond any investigatory/disciplinary mandate extended by the state legislature when they granted the Board the authority to perform extensive background checks as part of the renewal process.

The Texas Board of Nursing’s functions do include the screening of new and current licensees for the kind of criminal record which could indicate that they lack fitness to practice nursing. However, this authority does not extend to investigations and possible disciplinary action based on minor offenses committed one or two decades ago with years of uninterrupted, problem-free practice in the interim. All this does is waste Board funding and misdirect their limited resources away from pursuing licensees with genuine and ongoing issues that raise real questions about their safe practice.

 

It is unfortunate that it often takes the hiring of an attorney to convince the Board to retreat from this type of baseless investigation since they should never occur in the first place. It has been my experience as an attorney in many of these cases that the Board is essentially using the old offense as an excuse to sift into the nurse’s record and try and find anything which can then be added on as firmer grounds for disciplinary action. For example, the nurse will frequently be asked to submit to a polygraph examination and post-test forensic evaluation. As I have discussed elsewhere in my blog the Board has no authority to request this and the nurse is full within their rights to simply refuse. The problem is the nurse is never informed of this right of refusal as submission to test is presented as a mandatory matter-of-course. Following this the Board will habitually make an inappropriate referral to TPAPN based on the original criminal matter and whatever admissions or suspicious responses result from the polygraph and interview. Again the foundation for all of this can be nothing more than a decades old DWI or possession charge. 

 

Any nurse facing such a situation should consider hiring an attorney with experience representing clients before the Texas Board of Nursing. Unless they face a lawyer who knows what is and is not within their authority, the Board will likely try to initiate their own minor inquisition into your work and life history.

Am I Eligible for a Nursing License?: Declaratory Order of Eligibility for Licensure

 

I often receive calls from nursing students, or even those only considering pursuing a nursing degree, with questions concerning whether or not they will be licensed by the Board of Nursing. Typically, these individuals have a criminal record, history of misuse of controlled substances, or a mental health diagnosis that they fear will present an obstacle to successful licensure.

 

These persons have already taken best course of action by being proactive and contacting an attorney with experience before the Board and who should therefore be able to estimate the difficulty they may or may not face in applying for their license. Generally speaking most nurses with marks on their record should be able to obtain licensure. A good portion of these may have to do so under the form of a probationary license with restrictions related to whatever it is that concerns the Board.

 

For example, an applicant with a history of abuse of controlled substances may only receive their license on the condition that submit to random drug screens, attend AA meetings, successfully complete a recovery program, and work in an environment where they can be supervised by a superior nurse. A nurse with a criminal record may have to enter into an Agreed Order that provides for supervised practice and grants them only a provisional license with full licensure dependent on achieving a number of years of violation-free practice. Finally, persons with a serious psychiatric diagnosis may need to agree to an Order mandating that they continue with a specified medical treatment program to keep their condition under control.

 

The very few nurses who will likely not be issued a license are those with serious criminal convictions or an ongoing and untreated chemical dependency problem. On the issue of serious criminal offenses I am referring to convictions such as rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, injuring a child, or murder. Section 301.4535 of the Nursing Practice Act provides a list of criminal offenses for which the Board may refuse to license an applicant. Other felony convictions fall under this list as well.

 

Future nurses should note, however, that the Board is typically reluctant to license a nurse even a minor black mark on their record if they are not represented by an attorney. They will usually refuse outright or press a nurse to enter into an order with terms that are more stringent than indicated by their history. As in any disciplinary matter, the Board of nursing generally pursues the severest sanction unless the nurse has a lawyer to fight for their interests.

 

One option for students unsure of their eligibility for licensure is found in § 301.257 of the Nursing Practice Act. This section provides that a nursing student or even a person only considering attending a nursing school can file a Petition for a Declaratory Order of Eligibility for Licensure. In response, the Board of Nursing will then review that person’s history and assess whether they meet the required good moral and professional character standards. If they do, the Board Staff will issue a Declaratory Order finding that individual conditionally eligible for licensure as long as they graduate and later pass the standard nursing exams.

 

If you have questions about your eligibility for a Texas nursing license or the declaratory order procedure, please call an experienced administrative law attorney. They should be able to intelligently discuss your case and lay out your options. Don’t wait until after graduating from nursing school to find out that you may not be eligible for a Texas license.

Texas Board of Nursing Abuse of Chemical Dependency Guidelines

 

According to the Texas Board of Nursing’s Administrative Rules any nurse who has a diagnosis of chemical dependency or who otherwise has a history of abuse of controlled substances must demonstrate through “objective, verifiable evidence” that they have been sober for the past twelve months before they can be allowed to continue practicing licensed nursing. Title 22 Texas Administrative Code § 213.29 and the Board’s “Eligibility and Disciplinary Sanctions for Nurses with Substance Abuse, Misuse, Substance Dependency, or other Substance Use Disorder.” Normally, a nurse will establish that they have been sober throughout the past year by offering up AA logs, negative drug screens, an expert evaluation by an addiction specialist, and testimony from support group members, coworkers, and other intimate acquaintances. The idea is that with the evidence in hand, the Nursing Board will be able to verify the nurse’s sobriety date and see if this meets the twelve-month threshold.

 

Regrettably, it has been my recent experience serving as an attorney for such nurses that the Texas Board of Nursing is all too eager to brush aside such offers of proof and race to a full administrative hearing where they seek, contrary to their own rules and policy guidelines, a one-year suspension of the nurse’s license. In the cases I have been involved with, Texas Nursing Board Staff have repeatedly argued that a one year “timeout” is the appropriate sanction. Their idea is that during this year long timeout period, the licensee can work on their recovery and accumulate verifiable evidence of their sobriety. The problem is that the Board maintains that this timeout applies whether or not the nurse all ready has twelve months of verifiable sobriety. This is an incorrect statement of the law and is grossly unfair and unnecessary for nurses who have already been sober for a year or longer.

 

Another problem with the Board trial strategy in this area is that in the lead up time to a full SOAH hearing, they typically refuse to accept a chemically dependent nurse’s evidence of their sobriety date. In line with this any Agreed Order offered by the Board to settle the case fails to include a finding of fact setting forth the licensee’s date of sobriety. Inclusion of the sobriety date is absolutely crucial. This is the finding the nurse needs so that they can trace back twelve months of continuous sobriety. Otherwise when they later seek to lift any bar to their ability to actively practice nursing, the whole issue of when is their initial date of sobriety will have to be litigated all over again. The Board of Nursing will once again reject the nurse’s evidence of sobriety as insufficient and force the licensee to once again hire an attorney and take the matter all the way through to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

 

Given the Texas Board of Nursing’s intransigence on this point, a nurse’s only real option is to pursue their case all the way to SOAH the first time around. This is the only way to have a finding of fact issued, in this case by an Administrative Law Judge, establishing their date of sobriety so that they will have a concrete point from which to trace their one-year of sobriety. This is a waste of taxpayer money and needlessly creates stress and drains the finances of the nurse. Simply put, the Board needs to follow their own administrative rules and policies.

 

As an attorney I usually advise my clients in this situation not to accept an Agreed Order that does not contain a sobriety date. Fighting the Board all the way through SOAH may be more expensive in the short run than simply signing the agreement, however, in the long run they will probably need to hire an attorney when they later attempt to reactive their license or lift any bar preventing them from practicing as a nurse. This is because they still need to establish their sobriety date so that they can demonstrate twelve months free from any chemical substances. Furthermore, if they decide to challenge the Board now, their current license will remain active and they will be able to continue working as a nurse while the disciplinary process runs its course. Because of the Board’s refusal to accept a sobriety date, by the time this process has run its course, the nurse may have already accumulated a full year of sobriety and therefore not suffer any down time.

 

I strongly recommend that any nurse’s facing this scenario contact an attorney with experience in administrative law and representing clients before the Texas Board of Nursing. They will be able to help you accumulate the evidence needed to demonstrate twelve months of continuous sobriety and be able to discuss with you the best options for protecting your license.