On Wednesday January 25, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe spoke at a news conference providing information on Operation Nightingale; that three nursing schools in Florida, Siena College, Palm Beach School of Nursing, and Sacred Heart International Institute were involved in a large scale fraud scheme.
Lapointe's remarks included the following statement, “Not only is this a public safety concern, it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who actually complete the demanding clinical and course work required to obtain their professional licenses and employment, a fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our health care system.”
Details of the Fraud Scheme
25 people have been charged by federal authorities for their alleged participation in the fraud scheme. "Administrators of the Florida schools and administrators and affiliates of a series of nursing test prep academies in other states that recruited candidates to buy the fake diplomas" are the people facing federal charges each with the potential of up to 20 years in prison.
The grand jury indictments indicate that combined "more than 7,600 fraudulent nursing degree diplomas" were sold to people looking to work as registered nurses (RNs) or licensed practical nurses (LPNs) without investing the time, money, and energy into actually completing the required nursing program curriculum and clinicals. These people not only reside or work in the state of Florida but other states as well including Maryland, New York, Georgia, Ohio, New Jersey, and Delaware.
The scheme took place over the course of several years, dating from 2016-2021 raking in a total value of $114 million. According to authorities, a little over one-third (2,800) of the people who purchased these falsified documents actually passed the licensing exam and many went on to find employment in the healthcare sector. One news outlet reports students paid as much as $10,000 for a fraudulent degree.
What Happens Now?
All three nursing schools named in the scheme are now closed, and investigations have been launched into the careers of those working under the guise of falsely obtained nursing licenses. The names of the fraudulently licensed nurses have been shared with the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) which has already released a statement indicating " Nursing regulatory bodies in affected states have been investigating individual cases and are taking appropriate action, in accordance with their state laws and due process, that includes loss of license."
Reportedly, none of the fraudulent nurses working have been found to have caused harm to patients and to date none have been charged as part of the scheme although investigators believe that they knowingly purchased the falsified documents.
Delaware State Board of Nursing announced it has revoked the licenses of 26 nurses in connection with the scheme. Additionally, the Georgia Board of Nursing has sent letters to 22 nurses practicing in the state with fraudulently obtained licenses through the scheme asking them to voluntarily surrender their licenses.
This news breaks on the heels of the release of Gallup's annual survey for most trusted professions. Nurses have taken the top spot on the list for 21 consecutive years, and rightly so. Unfortunately, fraudulent schemes such as this directly undermine the trust that legitimate nurses work so hard to earn day in and day out.
The American Nurses Association also released a public statement:
“This disturbing news of a coordinated conspiracy allowing individuals to circumvent necessary coursework and clinical experiences as well as critical steps in the nursing licensure and credentialing process, is extremely unsettling. Nursing is without a doubt a highly specialized and ethical profession requiring rigorous and life-long education and training to acquire unmatched clinical expertise. You don’t achieve this overnight. There are no shortcuts in nursing – our patients and clients depend on us. It is both a demanding and rewarding profession that requires individuals to be adaptive to the evolving and complex health care landscape to ensure the delivery of safe and quality patient care.
The accusation that personnel at once accredited nursing schools allegedly participated in this scheme is simply deplorable. This undermines everything the nursing profession represents and stands for and is in direct opposition to the Code of Ethics for Nurses. Furthermore, these unlawful and unethical acts disparage the reputation of actual nurses everywhere who have rightfully earned the title of the ‘Most Trusted and Ethical Professionals’ through their education, hard work, dedication and time. We support the investigation and the judicial process to ensure individuals found to have been involved in this scheme are held accountable.”
What Can You Do?
Hold true to the Nurse Code of Ethics. Report any solicitation for this type of scheme to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG accepts tips and complaints covering potential fraud, waste and abuse in Medicare, Medicaid, and other government programs. Access more information on how to file a complaint and submit one electronically by going to the official OIG hotline webpage.
When was the last time you reviewed the nursing code of ethics? Find it here.