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A 'Crazy' Way for an Industry to Operate

When a hospital or temporary agency wants to hire a nurse, there's no easy way to check whether the person has run afoul of regulators elsewhere in the country.

A solution has sat in the hands of federal bureaucrats more than two decades -- but it's off limits to most employers. In 1987, Congress ordered federal health officials to create a database of state disciplinary actions against nurses and other health professionals.

The information was to be added to a database of similar information about doctors, which was opened up to hospitals and other eligible health employers in 1990.

But the move to add the nurses and others got caught in years of technological difficulties, uncertainty over what should be released and questions about who'd foot the bill.

Currently, only federal and state agencies and health plans, such as HMOs, are allowed access to the information about nurses. If hospitals could gain access, "then it would be very hard to hide any action taken against you anywhere in the country," said Katherine Eaves, chief nursing officer for Riverside County Regional Medical Center.

An official at the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration said the information on nurses and other health professionals should be available next year.

There is one obstacle remaining, however: Under the law, temp agencies would be allowed to search a nurse's background only if they were designated as agents of particular hospitals or other authorized users. Hospitals might not be willing to designate multiple staffing firms as their agents.

"The way our industry works is really crazy," said Mark Stagen, chief executive officer of Emerald Health Services, a temp firm in Marina del Rey. "You've got people with lives in their hands, and there's no effective way to check if they've had serious problems."

See main story:Temp Firms a Magnet for Unfit Nurses

Portrait of Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein is a deputy managing editor at ProPublica, overseeing the Local Reporting Network, which works with local news organizations to produce accountability journalism on issues of importance to their communities. From 2008 to 2017, he was a senior reporter covering health care and the pharmaceutical industry. He then worked as a senior editor.

Portrait of Tracy Weber

Tracy Weber

Tracy Weber is a senior editor at ProPublica. Previously, Weber was a senior reporter covering health care issues at ProPublica and, before that, she reported for the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Orange County Register.

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