In the past few years, my Firm has handled an increasing number of cases with the Texas Board of Nursing involving social media websites and the disclosure of confidential patient information. This can be a confusing topic as there is considerable gray area as to what constitutes the impermissible release of patient information and
Mirroring general trends, the number of standard of care complaints against Texas nurses have risen dramatically in the past few years. All too often, the Board has chosen to punish nurses as individuals for what are actually institutional defects in the larger medical entities where they practice. This is particularly true for nurses serving…
Effective May 2, 2007, the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners (recently renamed to the Texas Board of Nursing) adopted new language regarding rules §§ 214 and 215 governing Professional and Vocational Nursing Education. First published in the Texas Register on March 9, 2007, the rule change was designed to eliminate any misunderstanding as to the necessary student-to-faculty ratio required for an approved nursing school. The rule makes clear that by using preceptors, the maximum student-to-faculty ratio can be increased to 1:24 and for teaching assistants with a faculty member in a clinical setting, a ratio of 1:15.
More recently on June 22, 2007, the Board adopted numerous changes regarding Continuing Education requirements. Rule § 216 was modified so that a contact hour for continuing education requirements purposes was extended from 50 to 60 minutes. The Rule was also changed such that it is no longer mandatory for RNs to take a CE course on Hepatitis C.
More significantly, the Board has changed its policy on auditing and investigating nurses for compliance with CE requirements. Previously Board rules provided for a random audit of licensees for fulfillment of CE provisions. If no evidence of compliance was provided by the nurse an investigation was initiated which could lead to possible disciplinary action. Under the rule change, all licensees are required to submit evidence of CE compliance when seeking license renewal and if insufficient proof is provided the Board will simply deny their renewal application. This new rule is found at § 216.11.
In March, the Board adopted several amendments to §§ 213.28 and 213.33, two rules related to practice and procedure in disciplinary matters. Language was added to § 213.33 outlining the specific qualifications required of a Board appointed psychologist or psychiatrist who is charged with evaluating a licensee’s present fitness to practice nursing (§ 213.33(e)). The new provisions also permit the Board to request that the licensee be examined by a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist to determine the likelihood of future violations by the nurse and the level of danger they pose to the public (§ 213.33(f)).
Recently, the Board of Nurse Examiners has adopted two practices that besides being unlawful under the Board’s own rules and the applicable law cause great harm to the licensee, one even rising to an effective denial of due process. The first such practice involves the prosecution of disciplinary actions by filing formal charges internally against the nurse, without first offering the licensee a chance to present their case at an informal conference. Not only is this skipping of the informal process contrary to Nursing Board Rules, it also places an undue burden on licensees who are needlessly forced to shoulder increased legal costs and emotional strain.
Similar to many Texas state licensing boards, the Board of Nurse Examiners has adopted rules mandating that a licensee facing a disciplinary action be given the opportunity to participate in an informal settlement conference before the filing of formal charges. Pursuant to the Nursing Practice and Administrative Procedure Acts, the Board Rule regarding informal proceedings expressly states that the licensee be given an “opportunity to be heard.” Title 2 Texas Administrative Code § 213.20(b). Presumably, the rationale for this rule is to ensure that licensees and Board Staff have a chance to informally present their respective cases and hopefully achieve an agreed settlement. Such a procedure avoids encumbering the State Office of Administrative Hearings with an additional case when the matter is open to informal settlement. Likewise the costs of a formal SOAH proceeding are far greater for both the Board and the licensee when compared to an informal conference.
Even more egregiously, the BNE has in some cases decided to file formal charges, broadcast such filing on their website for public viewing, but refuse or wait many months to also docket the case at the State Office of Administrative Hearings. This effectively places the matter in administrative limbo as under the APA until the case is docketed, SOAH does not gain jurisdiction over the matter. This means there will not be a date for a formal hearing, an Administrative Law Judge will not be appointed to preside over the case, and parties can not effectively file motions or perform discovery. Title 1 TAC § 155.9(e). Such practice clearly violates SOAH’s Rules of Procedure which explicitly mandate that an agency pursuing a contested case “shall” docket the case. § 155.9. Moreover, a failure to docket the case after the filing of formal charges also contravenes the APA’s stricture that parties are entitled to a hearing on the merits. Texas Government Code § 2001.051. Simply put, the Board of Nurse Examiners has no legal authority to pursue this policy -in fact such practice violates the rules.
Established under Chapter 467 of the Health and Safety Code, TPAPN is a state-approved peer assistance program for Texas nurses. Operated by the Texas Nurses Association, TPAPN offers licensed nurses who are impaired by chemical dependency or mental illness an opportunity to undergo treatment and to safely return back to nursing practice -all under the protection of confidentiality.Available to Licensed Vocational and Registered Nurses who are diagnosed with substance abuse, chemical dependency, anxiety disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, program participation is an alternative to being reported to the Board of Nurse Examiners. A nurse suffering or who thinks they may be afflicted with one of the above diagnoses can either self-report or be referred to TPAPN by their employer. Completely voluntary, the program allows a nurse who has entered TPAPN to decline to participate or withdraw at any time. However, failure to adequately fulfill the TPAPN contract may result in a report being generated to the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners.
The self-proclaimed goal of the program is to provide an effective channel for recovery from chemical dependency and/or mental illness and effective re-integration back into nursing practice, thus protecting the public and providing incentives for professional accountability. Once in TPAPN, the nurse is assigned a case manager with extensive academic and clinical expertise in chemical dependency and psychiatric nursing. The program also includes advocates, LVN and RN volunteers who are there to support nurses throughout the program. Advocates create another layer of support for when a nurse’s case manager is not available.
Although initial arrests and convictions for Driving While Intoxictated (DWI) will not ordinarily result in the imposition of a disciplinary sanction against a Texas Nurse, they often do give rise to a stressful and searching investigation by Staff of the Board of Nurse Examiners. This result is due to, on the one hand, the legal fact that under the Nursing Practice Act, many DWI’s do not relate to the practice of nursing, and on the other, the practical reality of the Nursing Board’s zealous policing of what it deems unprofessional conduct (Texas Occupation Code § 301.452(b)(10). A knowledgeable attorney can best secure a positive outcome by ensuring that the correct standard is applied and not substituted by the Board’s personal opinion(s) on what constitutes unprofessional or dishonorable conduct.
Under the Nursing Practice Act the Board can take disciplinary action against a licensee if a nurse has been convicted or placed on deferred adjudication for either a felony or a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude. (Texas Occupation Code § 301.452(b)(3)). An individual’s first two DWI’s are misdemeanors under the Texas Penal Code with the third and all those thereafter rising to felonies. From a legal standpoint, however, the Nursing Board’s broad discretion to take disciplinary action under the Nursing Practice Act is limited by the Texas Occupation Code’s prescription that discipline can only be imposed if the felony or misdemeanor “directly relates to the duties and responsibilities of the license holder.” (Texas Occupation Code § 53.021). In deciding this issue, the Board must weigh certain factors such as “the relationship of the crime to the purposes for requiring a license to engage in the occupation” and “the relationship of the crime to the ability, capacity, or fitness required to perform the duties and discharge the responsibilities of the licensed occupation.” (§ 53.022)
Board Staff’s policy, however, is to initiate an investigation into a nurse’s fitness and character if they have two or more criminal arrests for alcohol or drug related offenses in a lifetime. Board Staff does not seem to differentiate between arrests, deferred probations, regular probations, dismissals and final convictions with respect to opening an investigation. Once the investigation is initiated, Board Staff tries to force the nurse into a forensic psychological evaluation and polygraph test in an effort to determine if the license holder suffers from a DSM IV diagnosis of chemical abuse or dependence. Unfortunately, any other conduct or psychiatric disorder discovered through this battery of questionable discovery is then utilized to stipulate the nurse’s registration. Board Staff is successful in this less than admirable procedure as many nurses think they do not need or can not afford an attorney. Competent, experienced counsel however, can put a halt to this process and mount a successful defense against Board Staff’s position that all criminal conduct is unprofessional and therefore relates to the practice of nursing. Moreover, a knowledgeable attorney will know how to circumvent Board Staff’s insistence that the Nurse undergo an evaluation with a “Board Approved” expert and then submit to the rigors of a “qualifying” polygraph examination.
The Board of Nurse Examiners for the State of Texas received authorization and funding from the legislature to undergo complete criminal history and background checks on every nurse in the State of Texas. Accordingly, every LVN and RN in Texas will be required to submit a fingerprint card to the BNE over the next ten years. The cards will be submitted to the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Saftey for verification and accuracy of the Nurse’s identity and criminal history. Ten percent of nurses will be required to undergo this scrutiny per year until all licensees have been evaluated. This has created a marked rise in investigations and disciplinary orders. There are several inherent problems with this process however, and nurses should seek advice from an experienced lawyer before they accept a proposed disciplinary sanction that will mar their record indefinitely.
To begin, the BNE did not acquire jursidiction over deferred adjudications until September 1, 2005. Staff of the Board however, is investigating offenses that resulted in deferred adjudication probations and dismissals that are more than twenty years old. This week alone I received calls from two LVNs who had just such misdemeanor criminal records and were being investigated by the BNE. Board Staff, including the Attorneys, readily admit they did not and do not have substantive jurisdiction over the criminal history, but maintain they are concerned about the conduct or the psychiatric disorder that may be reflected by the offense and the behavior. The fact is both of these nurses have renewed their licenses for the last twenty (20) years and have never been required to reveal this history. Additionally, both have practiced nursing without incident during this period and each has had exceptional performance appraisals from all employers. Why then is the BNE delving into these issues when all of their investigators have such large case loads that they can not adequately work up a case? The answer is simple -Public Image.