- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A former nurse who says he has killed as many as 40 patients over the past 16 years was fired from at least two hospitals and was even the subject of a murder investigation. But Charles Cullen kept managing to land another job.

Authorities say the case underscores serious flaws in a system in which hospitals report only limited information about nurses to other prospective employers for fear they might get sued. A severe nursing shortage may also have played a part.

“Short of an actual conviction for a criminal act, there is nothing that needs to be reported when someone is fired,” said Dr. William Cors, Somerset Medical Center’s chief medical officer. “That needs to change.”

Mr. Cullen, 43, is charged with murdering a Roman Catholic clergyman and attempting to kill another patient at Somerset Medical Center. More charges could follow after prosecutors complete their investigation of Mr. Cullen’s contentions that he killed 30 to 40 patients at nine hospitals and a nursing home in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Prosecutors say he gave the seriously ill patients lethal drug overdoses to end their suffering.

Despite Mr. Cullen’s spotty record, officials at Somerset had found nothing wrong after checking his credentials. That is because most hospitals will only confirm the dates of employment for a former worker, and will not make a positive or negative recommendation.

“We validated that he had an active New Jersey nursing license,” Dr. Cors said. “We had reference checks from a previous employer. It was your standard ‘He worked from this date to that date’ without any recommendation either way.”

Similarly, Donna Leusner, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Senior Services, said hospitals are only required to report to the state agency suspicions of criminal activity that endangers the lives of patients or employees.

Dr. Cors said the health care industry needs to be able to share information about fired workers, either through voluntarily changing reference policies, or through legislation compelling hospitals to do so. Somerset officials have spoken with several New Jersey legislators asking for new laws to improve reporting requirements on fired workers.

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