- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — A law that took effect this year requiring federal criminal background checks for Maryland nurses has created delays in licensing health care workers, even as the state suffers a nursing shortage.

The Maryland Board of Nursing, which licenses nurses and nursing assistants, said applicants have been experiencing delays getting fingerprints processed because of the law, which took effect in January. But a solution may not come until next year.

“Until the law gets changed, there really isn”t that [they] can do or we can do,” said Patricia Ann Noble, executive director of the nursing board.

Mrs. Noble said she does not know how many nurses are unable to practice because of the delays but hopes to have an estimate by next week.

Maryland joined 30 other states in requiring the background checks, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. The District will require checks beginning at the end of the year, and Virginia does not require background checks for nurses, according to the council.

A spokeswoman for the council said she was unaware of any other states that had problems implementing the background checks.

Mrs. Noble said Maryland”s Nursing Board is pushing for legislation for the 2008 session that would allow nurses to file for 30-day extensions of their temporary licenses while their background checks are being completed.

The board “sits in a very precarious situation with trying to take care of the licensees and taking care of the public,” she said. “Protecting the public is the primary focus.”

But some experienced nurses have been sent home because of the processing delays.

Laurie Martin, a registered nurse with 35 years experience, said she moved from Tennessee to Maryland to take a job with a Baltimore hospital but has been out of work for three weeks. She said she”s been fingerprinted three times in the past six months and has been unable to practice in Maryland since her temporary license expired last month.

“I can’t work right now because of their problem,” Mrs. Martin said.

Mrs. Martin drove from her home in Elkton, Md., to Baltimore to have her fingerprints taken for the background check, but her prints were rejected the first time they were submitted, and she never heard from the Nursing Board after submitting the two other sets of prints.

Mrs. Martin said earlier this week that she was frustrated that the board had not fixed the problem.

“My biggest beef is you can’t just take a license away from people if [the state isn’t] able to uphold their end of the law,” she said.

After inquiries about the case from The Washington Times, a representative for the Maryland Criminal Justice Information System, the state’s fingerprint-processing agency, yesterday afternoon expedited Mrs. Martin’s case, and her license was reinstated.

Carole Shelton, director of the Criminal Justice Information System, also asked for a meeting with the Nursing Board.

“We will get together and make sure their aren’t any more Laurie Martin cases,” she said.

Dania Salerno moved to Maryland from New Jersey, where she passed a background check in December. She has been fingerprinted twice in Maryland — once in ink and once digitally — since applying for her license.

But Miss Salerno, who has three children and works at a Harford County hospital, said she expected to be out of work as of 7 p.m. yesterday because of delays getting her Maryland background check processed.

“It’s disappointing,” she said yesterday. “I’ve done my part, I’ve paid my fees, I did all the legwork, and it’s frustrating.”

The backlog comes as Maryland and the rest of the nation struggles with nursing shortages.

The statewide nursing vacancy rate increased to 13 percent, or almost 2,340 nurses, last year. That figure is up from 10 percent in 2005, the Maryland Hospital Association reported last week. Nursing vacancies hit 15.6 percent at the height of the state nursing shortage in 2001.

And while Maryland has begun providing new incentives for nurses to fill those vacancies, including scholarships, the fingerprinting problems appear to be stalling that progress.

Sponsors of the background-check legislation, which passed both the Senate and House unanimously last year, said that bureaucratic troubles should not hold up qualified nurses who want to work in the state.

“It sounds like a problem with the bureaucracy,” said Delegate Donald B. Elliott, Western Maryland Republican and co-sponsor of the legislation. “It appears to me however, that the board, in recognition of what’s going on here, ought to give some relief to these people who are having these problems.”

The law mandating background checks now applies only to new nurses and nurses moving to Maryland from out of state, but beginning in January the requirement will be phased in for nurses applying for renewals.

“We better have a good plan when this starts,” Miss Shelton said.

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