More and more Georgia nurses are being disciplined for drug- and alcohol-related allegations.
Channel 2’s Aaron Diamant spent weeks reading online reports on disciplinary actions taken against registered nurses by the Georgia Board of Nursing, and those reports show a huge spike this year.
The reports show there were just 34 cases in 2011, and so far this year, there have been 82. Of this year’s cases, 63 involved drugs or alcohol. Fifty-two of them involved prescription drugs, and included everything from abuse to theft.
The reports show several cases where nurses even diverted drugs from patients, including powerful painkillers.
“Diversion is ugly," said Georgia Nurses Association CEO Debbie Hackman.
She said her biggest concern is patient safety.
“People are in fragile states, and the emotionalism involved with that environment is heightened, but it's still no excuse," Hackman said.
But Barry Cranfill, president of Georgia's Nursing Board, told Channel 2 Action News the sharp increase of cases needs context. Cranfill said the board had a backlog of cases dating back to 2010. He said when it comes to diversion, the board is taking a harder stance.
“That is a sacred trust that is being violated with patients, and we can't have that," Cranfill said.
According to the reports, discipline usually involves four years’ probation, drug treatment, drug testing and restrictions on the job. The board rarely suspends a nurse's license indefinitely.
"We don't wish to make it so these nurses can never return," Cranfill said. "But until that time, they need to be watched."
Many of the state consent reports show nurses who are repeat offenders. One nurse got caught at four area facilities over a five-month period before the state board suspended her license.
Hackman blames that on the state's lack of a mandatory reporting law.
"It's disappointing, and it's alarming," Hackman said.
Mandatory reporting would require co-workers and medical facility leaders to report all nurses suspected of being impaired or suspected of drug abuse or theft, directly to the Georgia Board of Nursing.
"The Board of Nursing does not want nurses to job hop -- be caught, go to another job, be caught, go to another job -- and have to rely on that job to make the right decision to report that nurse," Cranfill said.
The nursing board also is backing mandatory-reporting legislation. Many other states already have a similar law on the books.
State Sen. Buddy Carter, of Pooler, introduced the bill during this year's legislative session. It sailed through legislative committees, but died on the floor on the last day. He plans to introduce it again next year.
“This is something that needs to be in place; should have been in place years ago," Carter said. "This is going to be on the top of the list. There's no question about it."
Prominent Atlanta attorney Tommy Malone agrees mandatory reporting is necessary. He also is not sold on giving disciplined nurses so many chances.
“I've had one experience where in the procedure room with other people present, the nursing assistant or the nurse withdrew some sedative agent from the vial and injected it into themselves," Malone said.
He's currently trying a case against former Cobb County anesthetist Paul Serdula, who went to prison last year for sexually assaulting and videotaping patients. Records from the case show police found piles of potent prescription medications in Serdula's home.
"We all want to assume that every health care provider we come in contact with sings in the choir in the neighborhood church," Malone said. "We don't like to think bad things, but they're there. They exist."