New Jersey healthcare stakeholders are crafting a bill that would make hospitals and healthcare facilities duty-bound to report incompetent or potentially criminal employees such as Charles Cullen, the former nurse who has confessed to dozens of murders at a string of hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The Health Care Professional Responsibility and Reporting Enhancement Act, a broad-based expansion and revision of existing statutory law, was introduced in the state Senate on June 24 just before the summer recess. The bill will be the subject of a health committee hearing in early September when the Legislature returns from its summer recess, and it could be on the governor's desk by late September or early October, said state Sen. Joseph Vitale, the Democratic sponsor of the bill. Vitale also chairs the Senate health committee.
"There was just one person out of 120,000 licensed nurses in New Jersey who decided they are going to play God, but part of this was a system error," Vitale said. "Whether it was a willingness or inability to share information from employer to employer, it enabled Charles Cullen to move from institution to institution and continue to kill people. That's one example of the failure of the system."
Cullen pleaded guilty in April to 13 murders and two attempted murders at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J., his last stop during his 16-year career as a nurse at various hospitals despite his troubled work history. In exchange for the plea and Cullen's promise to cooperate in the probe of up to 40 deaths, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.
The draft bill would provide immunity to hospitals and healthcare facilities that report or discuss employment history to prospective employers. It also would require them to share negative information with prospective employers. How to put teeth into that requirement has not yet been worked out, Vitale said. The revised law also would require criminal background checks on every healthcare professional up for licensing or license renewal. The information would be shared among the various licensing boards.
In April, New Jersey's two U.S. senators introduced legislation in Congress that would require hospitals in all states to report adverse actions taken against healthcare professionals to licensing boards and the National Practitioner Data Bank, but the proposal has stalled.
The New Jersey Hospital Association, which has actively helped draft the state bill, is "still evaluating" the reporting requirement for hospitals, said Ron Czajkowski, a spokesman.
Andrea Augenbaugh, chief executive officer of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, said she wonders if the bill is strong enough to weed out "truly insane murderers" like Cullen.
The bill would complement New Jersey's recently enacted Patient Safety Act, Clifton Lacy, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a written statement. It "addresses the ability to detect and remediate or remove healthcare professionals who are either impaired, incompetent, or cause intentional harm."