Some lawmakers would like the National Practitioner Data Bank to extend its oversight to nurses and other healthcare professionals, a change that gained momentum after the public outcry over the case of Charles Cullen, the former nurse who pleaded guilty to killing 24 patients at hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (Dec. 22/29, 2003, p. 6)
Just months after his arrest in December 2003, New Jersey's two senators, Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg, co-sponsored legislation to expand the databank to cover not only doctors and dentists, as the law is written now, but all licensed healthcare practitioners, including nurses, pharmacists and respiratory therapists.
That legislation stalled in the last Congress, but an identical measure -- the Safe Health Care Reporting Act of 2005 -- was introduced in April by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). Among other elements, the bill would indemnify a healthcare organization that discloses information about adverse actions by nurses or other health professionals.
In Cullen's case, the killing spree continued despite several red flags over a checkered, 16-year nursing career in which he moved from one hospital to another, leaving a trail of problems and terminations. Detailed information about his work history was rarely if ever shared by hospitals because of concerns about potential liability in lawsuits.
While the federal legislation is pending on Capitol Hill, the two states in which Cullen committed his crimes both have passed legislation to try to address concerns about the lack of proper oversight and control when a rogue employee moves from job to job in the healthcare field. Last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell signed legislation to shield employers who provide the work histories of current or former employees in good faith.
Similar legislation was signed into law several weeks earlier in New Jersey. The New Jersey law, which requires medical facilities to provide information about formal disciplinary action against employees to prospective employers, also mandates that licensed healthcare workers -- including doctors and nurses -- undergo a background check.