Nurse Karen Rheuame's Rhode Island license was suspended in 2007 after she was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a woman in a wheelchair in a hospital emergency room and trying to steal her pocketbook, according to state disciplinary records. She also had numerous other convictions and, records show, had once brought two beers to work, which she explained to her boss were for "the ride home."
But she's free to practice in Massachusetts. A health department official there said regulators are reviewing Rheuame's case and others to see if action is warranted, but they haven't received any complaints about the nurses in Massachusetts.
Rheuame said she'd made mistakes but has completed rehabilitation for addiction. "I'm not going to minimize what I did," she said. "I've really turned my life around since then."
There is ample information available for states to identify nurses disciplined by other jurisdictions. Two separate databases attempt to track disciplinary actions from every state. States are required to report to one, run by the federal government, within 30 days of taking an action. Reporting to the other, operated by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, is voluntary.
Each database can be programmed to alert a state whenever a nurse it has licensed runs into trouble in another state.
When checking a nurse's record, nursing officials say they almost uniformly use the council's database; it's free and the government's is not. In fact, federal statistics show that nursing boards accessed the government database fewer than 300 times total in 2007 and 2008.
In addition, ProPublica and The Times found that the federal database is incomplete, despite the requirement that all states report discipline to it. Many actions appeared to be missing when reporters tried to match known cases by date of discipline to a version of the database in which confidential information had been removed.
Some regulators are vigilant, while others are not.
Louisiana, for example, checks the council database every day for discipline involving its nurses, its board director said. Rhode Island does it once a month, an official said.
New York, by contrast, uses it primarily to look into the backgrounds of people applying for nursing licenses. It typically does not check it for problems involving the 266,000 registered nurses already licensed to practice in New York.
Barbara Zittel, head of the New York board, said she relies on other states to notify her if one of her nurses has been disciplined and she counts on the nurses themselves to honestly disclose their problems. It works, she says, "unless someone is lying to us."
Officials at the National Council of State Boards of Nursing said they don't tell nursing boards how often to consult their database. But tools are there to help them. State boards imposing discipline, for instance, can send out warnings known as "speed memos" to flag other states.
But the council's database continues to have significant weaknesses. Nearly all states report their disciplinary information to the council, according to its website. Yet only 37 states and the District of Columbia supply it with the names of all their licensees.
As a result, it's difficult for regulators to know who is licensed in the 13 other states, including California, and when to alert them about discipline. Those states account for more than 40% of the nation's approximately 3.5 million registered nursing licenses.
The council cannot force states to submit names, and states have a financial incentive not to: They make money by charging nurses to verify their licenses, test scores and training to authorities in other states. For example, a nurse licensed in California who wants credentials to practice in Arizona must pay California $60 to confirm her background. Those sorts of checks netted California nearly $1 million in fiscal 2009. New York, which charges $20 a check, earns more than $250,000 a year.
When states turn over their lists of licensed nurses to the national council, that group earns such verification fees. "The decision to join is a revenue loss for them," said Kathy Apple, the council's chief executive officer. "That's difficult for some states."
Barbara Morvant, executive director of Louisiana's board, said the trade-off was worth it. After the board submitted the names of all its licensees last year, it saw an immediate upswing in the number of disciplinary actions it discovered.
"While it was a loss of revenue to our state, it was a benefit to the public," she said.
To estimate the scope of the problem nationwide, ProPublica and The Times searched the records of the nation's largest state, looking for examples of nurses licensed in California who had been disciplined elsewhere.