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Unions criticize California bill aimed at improving the policing of healthcare workers

The Service Employees International Union and others say the legislation, which would overhaul the system for disciplining workers accused of misconduct, does little to improve patient safety.

April 17, 2010|By Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein

Labor unions representing California nurses are attacking key parts of a bill that would overhaul the state's system for investigating and disciplining health workers accused of misconduct.

The objections by the politically powerful California Nurses Assn., Service Employees International Union and groups for other health professions come days before a state Senate panel is set to vote on moving the bill forward. The Senate Committee on Business, Professions and Economic Development must advance the bill Monday or it is dead for this session.

Among the proposed reforms are safeguards that would bring California in line with other states, such as requiring that employers report workers who are fired or suspended for serious wrongdoing.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made fixing the system a priority since ProPublica and The Times reported last July that dangerous and incompetent nurses were able to keep practicing for years despite accusations of misconduct, abuse or neglect.

A representative for the governor said this week that he remained committed to the reforms.

Should it pass in the Legislature, the measure would largely standardize the disciplinary process for the state's 1 million licensed healthcare professionals, including dentists, psychologists, chiropractors and others. In letters to the Senate committee, union officials say they support many elements of the bill, including efforts to speed up the disciplinary process and give the Board of Registered Nursing the power to hire its own investigators. But the letters object to other reforms, saying they would erode workers' due process rights.

The bill "creates problems for licensed health professionals without improving patient safety," wrote Bill Lloyd, acting executive director of the SEIU's California State Council.

Bonnie Castillo, director of government relations for the California Nurses Assn., criticized the bill's author for working with the Schwarzenegger administration, a longtime foe of the nurses union, instead of with caregivers. "What they ended up with was a mishmash of a bill that really doesn't get to what the stated aim of this bill was," Castillo said in an interview.

The measure's chief sponsor, Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Business and Professions Committee, said that given the pressure, she doesn't know if she has the votes to advance it. "We just want to make sure that the consumer gets protected. . . . You can never make everybody happy. "

Unions have taken particular aim at the mandatory reporting requirement, which would oblige employers to notify regulators when workers have been fired or suspended for serious problems. The nurses association, with a membership of 86,000, said the requirement could punish whistle-blowers unfairly dismissed by their employers.

Many states already require such reporting.

tracy.weber@propublica.org

charles.ornstein@propublica.org

Weber and Ornstein are senior reporters at ProPublica in New York. Their previous stories about gaps in healthcare oversight can be found at latimes.com/nurses and propublica.org/nurses.

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