Attorney: Delays at N.J. Board of Nursing endanger public, leave health care workers uncertain

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Nurse taking elderly woman's blood pressure in nursing home

While New Jersey's nursing board has been restocked, it faces a large backload of cases, some lasting years. (Kasia Bialasiewicz/Bigstock)

The New Jersey Board of Nursing is broken, and the next governor will have to fix it.

That’s the diagnosis of Keith Hovey, an attorney at Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader, who said the board is backed up with so many cases that it can take months — even years — to get a hearing.

“They deserve fairness. They deserve their day in court,” Hovey said of the nurses he represents. “They shouldn’t have to work under a cloud as to whether or not they get to do the thing they believe they’re called to do simply because the current system allows them to languish into perpetuity.”

The board licenses a wide variety of nurses and home health care workers and regulates the work they do in New Jersey.

Hovey’s client was let go from her job at a Monmouth County hospital three years ago. She’s asked to be identified by her family name, Valeros, because her case is still pending. She was accused of falsifying records, and not providing proper care — though she’s disputing these charges.

The board doesn’t have the whole story, she said.

“It’s like this huge, heavy burden on me for the past three years,” she said. “I just take it day by day. I try not think about it. I try not to let it affect me. But I want to get it over with as fast as I can.”

Most of all, she said, the uncertainty scares her. Even a phone call from her attorney sends her mind racing.

“My heart sinks. My hands get clammy. It’s like a nightmare. It really, really is. I’m just trying to see the positive side of it and move forward. I’m just wanting that,” she said. “And I think I speak for every single nurse out there who’s living the same thing.”

Valeros became a nurse after grieving over the loss of her grandmother, whom she cared for back home in the Philippines. At her old job, she worked 12-hour shifts in the emergency room. Those were long days, she said, and she’d see about 20 patients per day. Nursing is what she feels like she’s meant to do, she said. Now, she doesn’t know what’s next.

“To this day, I still cry the same way. I want to get my life in order,” she said. “So I’ve dealt with anxiety, I’ve dealt with mood swings. You know, I don’t know what to do with myself half the time because of this. What’s going to happen with me?

“And not just me, but all of the other people who are in limbo?”

Seeking help from next governor

The board reviews more than 250 disciplinary cases each month. But Hovey said that pace is too slow.

Last month, he wrote to the gubernatorial candidates — Kim Guadagno, a Republican, and Phil Murphy, a Democrat — noting “grave concern” about the state of the board. On behalf of the American Association of Nurse Attorneys, he told the candidates the board needs substantive changes to better serve nurses and protect the public.

Now, the board simply doesn’t have enough resources to conduct investigations, Hovey said. He urged the major party candidates to commit to several measures as governor, from fully staffing the board to proposing adequate funding.

In his letter, Hovel urged the next governor to “stop the pilfering” of the board’s “coffers.” And he asked the candidates to propose legislation to reduces the board’s backlog and the time it’s allowed to process and resolve disciplinary matters.

“The system should parallel the court system — there are external deadlines you have to meet. And if you don’t meet them, cases get dismissed,” Hovey said.

If a patient decided to sue a nurse, he added, the matter would be resolved in less time than cases in line to be processed by the board. New Jersey law allows for two years to file a lawsuit, Hovey explained, with another year and a half to conduct the “discovery” required to have a trial.

“If there’s a nurse out there who doesn’t deserve to be a nurse, and who poses a danger to the public, it doesn’t serve the public’s interest for that individual to be practicing for several years before the board is able to take disciplinary action,” Hovey said.

On Thursday, the state’s Senate Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on the state’s Board of Nursing. Led by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and the committee’s chair, Sen. Robert Gordon, the hearing has been a topic of some controversy.

Weinberg and Gordon, both Democrats from Bergen County, announced their plan to hold a legislative hearing in August, arguing that the board is improperly funded and understaffed to the point of “crisis.”

Last week, Gov. Chris Christie appointed 10 new members to the board and made three reappointments, bringing the board membership up from 13 to 15.

In August, six of the board’s 13 seats were vacant, which meant that if one member were absent from the monthly meeting, the board would not have a quorum to conduct business.

Though this move fills the Board, lawmakers holding the oversight hearing have other concerns.

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