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CA Health Workers Kept Practicing, Despite Failed Drug Tests

More than 140 licensed nurses, pharmacists, and others were allowed to keep practicing in California after testing positive on the drug or alcohol screenings, reports the Los Angeles Times. The tests were part of a confidential program to treat and monitor past abusers.

The lapse in oversight continued for 10 months, despite the tougher standards imposed last fall by California that would suspend health professionals in such recovery programs—known as “diversion programs”—from practicing when they relapse.

Last year, in partnership with the Los Angeles Times, we investigated the lax oversight of California’s healthcare providers. As part of that project, we reported that “registered nurses were able to treat patients without permission and steal drugs while participating in the confidential recovery program.” A few months after our story, California adopted the stricter standards:

Health professionals will be automatically pulled from practice, at least temporarily, after a single positive result. And any restrictions to their licenses will be listed on public Web sites, easing the long-standing confidentiality protections that have shielded participants and kept their patients in the dark.

Those are the rules that today’s story says weren’t followed. The positive results in these 146 cases were disregarded due to a mistake by a state subcontractor, reports the Times. California pays a Virginia-based company, Maximus Inc., $2.5 million each year to run the diversion programs, and Maximus went on to subcontract the testing to a Pennsylvania-based company, which in turn subcontracted to a Kansas-based company, Clinical Reference Lab.

That subcontractor used the wrong standard to assess the drug tests. Again, from the Times: 

For healthcare professionals with known substance-abuse problems, strict abstinence from drug or alcohol is required, officials said. Instead, they said, the company used a lesser standard similar to that for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which allows workers such as truck drivers to indulge in alcohol or other substances when they are not working.

The equivalent program for doctors was discontinued in 2007 by the California Medical Board, after it was found to have ongoing problems.

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