Starting September 1st, 2013, the Texas Peer Assistance Program for Nurses (TPAPN) will significantly increase the length of their standard monitoring contracts. Previously an RN or LVN participant could expect to sign a two-year participation agreement while an Advanced Practice Nurse or CRNA would be asked to participate for three years. RN/LVN’s and APN/CRNA’s will now need to participate for three and five years, respectively. The new change applies to both nurses who enter TPAPN with or without an accompanying Board Order.

This policy change is probably meant to bring TPAPN more in line with the monitoring programs used by other Texas healthcare licensing agencies. For example, the Professional Recovery Network, which serves as the official peer assistance program for the Texas Pharmacy, Dental, and Veterinary Boards normally asks its participants to sign a five-year agreement. The Texas Physician Health Program also frequently makes use of a five-year agreement, although this can be much longer depending on the case.

While it is understandable why the Texas Board of Nursing would want to increase the standard timeframe for TPAPN participation, I have concerns as to how effective this change will be without corresponding reform of the TPAPN process. My firm has represented hundreds of nurses who have participated in TPAPN both with and without a corresponding Board Order. Many of these nurses have ended up in TPAPN even though they do not have a qualifying substance abuse, chemical dependency, or mental health issue. Usually this is due to the nurse believing they have no other option to retain their license and/or avoid action by the Board. This is oftentimes incorrect and our firm has helped numerous nurses achieve a better result.

This being said, for many nurses participation in TPAPN is a good option. TPAPN does provide a level of structure and direction which can be helpful to someone who is new to sobriety and just learning the tools necessary to remain abstinent. Ideally, this should be accompanied by a supportive and non-punitive atmosphere designed to assist this process. TPAPN’s goal is, and should be, assisting nurses to become and stay sober while monitoring this process through objective indicators such as drug and alcohol screening and regular reports from employers and medical/mental health providers. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that many of TPAPN’s rules and policies are counterproductive to these goals, lead to unnecessary referrals to the Board, and discourage potential participants from enrolling in the program.

Flaws with TPAPN include its policy of refusing to allow a participant to work until they have been cleared by an evaluator and passed a drug and alcohol screen. While sometimes this makes sense, oftentimes it does not as the nurse is already sober and may have been so for some time. This requirement frequently results in the nurse losing their job which significantly undermines their ability to successfully participate both from a sobriety, financial, and mental health standpoint.

TPAPN also prohibits its participants from taking any medication that is potentially abusable even if it is medically indicated, validly prescribed, and completely unrelated to the reason for their participation. For example, a nurse who enrolls in TPAPN due to a history of alcohol abuse but who also has a longstanding and well documented chronic pain syndrome will be asked to discontinue all narcotics. A nurse may also be forced to discontinue psychiatric medications even though these are medically indicated and beneficial. This rule automatically disqualifies a whole range of potential participants who would otherwise be good candidates and can make compliance for existing participants extremely difficult.

This policy also causes significant hardship for participants who develop a new medical condition while enrolled in TPAPN. As an example, a previous client of the firm was discharged from TPAPN after repeatedly testing positive for narcotics. The reason for the positive tests were the client’s periodic trips to the Emergency Room when he would pass a kidney stone and be given a short-term prescription to treat the accompanying severe pain. Each time the reason and prescription for the medication were clearly documented and not in dispute; However, in each instance the nurse was pulled away from work by TPAPN, often for more than a week, until he could provide a negative urine screen. He was further warned repeated instances could result in him being ejected or asked to restart the program. Not surprisingly, this is eventually exactly what occurred.

I see no reason why the above scenario should occur. It makes no sense from a sobriety perspective, is cruel to the participant, and places an unnecessary burden on the Nursing Board who is then forced to take on the case. Both the Professional Recovery Network and Physician Health Program allow participants to receive potentially addictive medication so long as it is medically indicated and documentation is promptly provided. In appropriate cases, they may require a consult with an addictionologist or other qualified professional to assess and monitor the need for such medication, but the decision is left to medical professionals, not a blanket policy.

A reform of TPAPN’s policies and process to allow greater discretion on a case-by-case basis would greatly improve the program’s effectiveness and success rate. It should emulate the more flexible approaches of its fellow monitoring programs in Texas, particularly as it starts to model the length of their participation agreements. Absent some of these reforms, I foresee the expanded participation window only compounding existing problems and increasing the number of nurses who fail to complete their agreements.

As emphasized repeatedly throughout this blog, a nurse who has been referred to TPAPN, or who is being referred to the Board by TPAPN, should contact an attorney for a consult. Many nurses aren’t aware there may be alternative options or, in the event of a Board referral, the best way to defend themselves and minimize any impact on their ability to practice. An experienced Texas Board of Nursing attorney should be able to discuss these issues and help you decide if it makes sense to retain a lawyer to defend your interests.