Federal authorities say they've uncovered a conspiracy to provide prospective nurses with bogus diplomas and credentials allowing them to sit for board exams—and care for patients if they managed to pass despite not earning nursing degrees.
Three now-closed Florida nursing schools were involved in a scheme that distributed fraudulent credentials to more than 7,600 people, the Justice Department alleges in recently unsealed indictments announced Wednesday.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida charged 25 people with involvement in an plot that gave aspiring nurses an unlawful shortcut to becoming registered nurses or licensed practical/vocational nurses, according to a news release and court documents.
Recruiters from Delaware, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Texas and program administrators at Siena College of Health in Lauderhill, Palm Beach School of Nursing in West Palm Beach and Sacred Heart International Institute in Boca Raton are among those charged. The defendants could face up to 20 years in prison. Court documents did not identify the attorneys representing the accused and Modern Healthcare was unable to determine who they are or how to contact them for comment. The U.S. attorney's office did not respond to requests for that information.
The allegedly phony documents were aspiring nurses’ tickets to qualify for the national nursing board exam that, if they passed, granted them nursing licenses. While the schools are based in Florida, the people who bypassed nursing school took nursing jobs nationwide, according to the Justice Department.
Adults ranked nursing as the most trusted profession for the 21st year in a row, according to a Gallup poll conducted last year. Federal officials expressed concern that the alleged scheme unfairly taints all nurses.
“Not only is this a public safety concern, it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who actually complete the demanding clinical and course work required to obtain their professional licenses and employment,” U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe said in the news release. "A fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our healthcare system.”
As a consequence of the alleged fraud, nurses are caring for patients but did not ethically earn the right to do so, FBI acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough said in the news release. "There are over 7,600 people around the country with fraudulent nursing credentials who are potentially in critical healthcare roles treating patients," he said.
This investigation is part of a Health and Human Services Department Office of Inspector General probe called Operation Nightingale, through which it partners with law enforcement agencies to crack down on cases affecting healthcare safety and quality.
“To date, we have not learned of nor uncovered any evidence of patient harm stemming from these individuals potentially providing services to patients,” an OIG spokesperson said in a statement. The OIG is working with state licensing boards to determine the best way to deal with people holding fraudulent nursing credentials, the spokesperson said.
The American Nurses Association denounced the alleged actions of those involved in the ring.
"The accusation that personnel at once-accredited nursing schools allegedly participated in this scheme is simply deplorable. This undermines everything the nursing profession represents and stands for and is in direct opposition to the Code of Ethics for Nurses," ANA President Jennifer Mensik Kennedy said in a news release Thursday.