Catching nurse impostors — if you can

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

If you've ever seen the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” you've probably wondered how in the world the protagonist could get away with his scheme of working jobs he had no qualifications for for so long. You might have also asked yourself that when reading the top story of our Daily Update on Monday morning.

For the uninitiated, the film (and woefully short-lived stage adaptation, in my opinion), tells the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., who forged millions in checks and successfully posed as a pilot and a doctor — all before his 19th birthday. The story takes place in the 1960s, so it's easy to attribute a lack of sophisticated technology with how Abagnale was able to keep his scheme going and escape Tom Hanks' FBI agent for so long.

He was eventually caught, reformed, became rich as a legitimate consultant to authorities and companies, and then embarked on a public speaking circuit that included several notable long-term care meetings in recent years. But for me, the film always raises the question of whether or not somebody would be able to get away with something like that in this day and age. Probably not, but the subject a recent news story certainly gave it a shot — just on a much smaller scale.

Leticia Gallarzo, 42, pleaded guilty last week to posing as a registered nurse at three nursing homes and five hospitals during a seven-month stretch of 2015. Gallarzo, who was arrested in October 2015 after being reported to authorities, reportedly used the name, date of birth and nursing license number of someone with a similar name who lived in a nearby Texas county.

"She was pretty creative in how she explained that to employers," Bruce Holter, an information specialist with the Texas Board of Nursing, told the Victoria Advocate back when Gallarzo was first arrested. "They took her word for it."

Taking job applicants' word at face value may not seem like the most thorough way to screen employees, especially when weeding out candidates who may go on to abuse drugs or even residents is high on providers and governments' to-do lists. And Gallarzo's case isn't the first of its kind, either.

But in defense of the facilities where Gallarzo worked, everything seemed to check out. A spokesman for one long-term care provider told the Advocate that Gallarzo passed a licensing check with the state board of nursing, and showed no previous criminal history on a background check.

“I think she was clever and came up with a way to go around these background checks that was successful,” the spokesman said.

In true “Catch Me If You Can” fashion, Gallarzo would jump ship as soon as a provider caught on to her scheme and then begin looking for employment in another city. Eventually, the nursing board alerted one provider that an “impostor” was applying for jobs under a stolen license number, leading them to alert authorities.

Gallarzo's indictment doesn't say whether any residents or patients were harmed as a result of her actions. Her sentencing is currently set for Oct. 3, at which point she could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

So while her case may not spawn a movie (and she may never be portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio), it can serve as an important lesson to providers to double down on their screening efforts. After all, even as states' vetting processes can vary, technology has come a long way from the 1960s.

"It's really easy to verify that someone is currently licensed," Lamkin advised.

Better to catch impostors in your facility before they're hired, instead of them catching you with your guard down.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan. Email her at emily.mongan@mcknights.com.


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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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