The State Worker

California nurses scrambling for education records after state board demands them

Tens of thousands of nurses and mental health workers in December abruptly received demands from a state licensing board that they produce records proving they have up-to-date training.
Tens of thousands of nurses and mental health workers in December abruptly received demands from a state licensing board that they produce records proving they have up-to-date training. Fresno Bee file, 2016

Tens of thousands of California nurses are scrambling to prove that they have to up-to-date credentials after a state licensing board suddenly demanded them.

The Board of Vocational Nurses and Psychiatric Technicians in December mailed letters to more than 52,000 medical professionals simultaneously requesting confirmation that they’ve taken mandatory classes.

In a normal year, the board checks the credentials of about 1,100 nurses and psychiatric technicians.

Its offices are inundated with letters from medical professionals around the state, according to employees who spoke with The Sacramento Bee. They also shared photographs depicting crates of unopened mail at the board office.

Phone calls to the board similarly go unanswered, with a recording citing a high volume of calls. It encourages people to check the board’s website.

Board Executive Officer Kameka Brown on Jan. 19 wrote a message to employees advising them to ask for extensions if they were delayed by a mail backlog. She told them to tell nurses that the department had a problem with an outside vendor.

The demands for paperwork appear to be the board’s response to reports from the Legislature and outside auditors that encouraged it to accelerate the pace of its continuing education audits. They are spot checks designed to ensure that vocational nurses and psychiatric technicians are pursuing professional development.

The board in a December report said it hoped to double the pace of those checks, which would have it reviewing about 2,400 nurses and psychiatric technicians every year.

Instead, it abruptly requested credentials from a third of the state’s licensed vocational nurses and psychiatric technicians.

Veronica Harms, spokeswoman for the Department of Consumer Affairs, said the board had planned to send the audits out in batches. It hired a state agency to print envelopes. When they were sent to the department’s mail room, all of them were delivered.

“Initially it was supposed to be staggered,” Harms said. “There was just a breakdown of communication” between the board and the Department of Consumer Affairs, she said.

Around the state, nurses and psychiatric technicians have been trying to make sense of the sudden demand for so many records. They speculated that the board had been hacked and was trying to recover data, or that it simply lost records.

“Everyone I know was being audited,” said Katrise Fraund, a senior psychiatric technician from Sonoma County.

Many of her peers had misplaced their records.

The board “sped up their audits and we are experiencing a lot of them,” said Christine Caro, a spokeswoman for California Association of Psychiatric Technicians.

The union estimates that about 4,000 mental health workers received continuing-education audits in December.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said he doubts the board can handle the sudden influx of paperwork.

The Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the board, would not estimate how long it would take to process the audits.

“If you spent 15 minutes on each one, it’s an astronomical amount of time,” said Hill, chairman of the Senate committee that oversees professional licensing boards.

The waves of paperwork are not the only setback unfolding at the board.

Its agenda for next month’s meeting suggests it is preparing to choose an acting executive officer less than a year after it hired Brown for that post. Brown, a former nursing executive at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs in Seattle, is still the board’s executive officer.

She did not reply to a message from The Bee.

Hill’s committee in March is scheduled to hold a hearing to look at the vocational nursing board and several other licensing commissions. It may lead to changes, such as terminating the board and folding its responsibilities into a different organization.

An October study from the Little Hoover Commission urged the Legislature to reform the state’s myriad licensing boards. The boards are intended to protect consumers, but the Little Hoover Commission report suggested that they often become barriers to lower-income residents pursuing new careers.

The report also noted that three separate boards have authority over nurses.

“Want to become a registered nurse? Go to the Board of Registered Nursing. Want to become a licensed vocational nurse? Go to the Board of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians. Want to become a certified nursing assistant? Go to the Department of Public Health,” the report said.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.

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