Other states should follow Nebraska's nurse protection example

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

If you have any doubt that lawmakers pay attention to news that comes across their desk, meet Omaha Sen. Brett Lindstrom (R).

Lindstrom spearheaded a whistleblower protection bill, signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) Wednesday, that bans retaliation against nurses, and guarantees confidentiality when they file complaints with the state.

The bill's origins sit with two nurses who filed complaints about their supervisors. One reported her manager for “unprofessional and unethical practices” in 2013, while the other related to practicing out of the scope of an RN, according to Nebraska Watchdog, which is where Lindstrom said he saw the story. The bill was backed by the Nebraska Nurses Association and the Nebraska Medical Association.

The state's Department of Health and Human Services turned over the full complaints, including the identities of the whistleblower nurses, to the people being reported, i.e. the complainants' bosses. The state says reports are kept confidential, but I'd argue they're using that term loosely, especially in their assertion that those being investigated have the right to respond.

The state's bill — and the cases — should have long-term care providers taking note. This type of situation puts workers in a Catch-22. They're mandated to report unlicensed, illegal or unethical activities, but presumably don't want to lose their jobs.

In one case, nurse Pam McNally reported her boss at a physician-owned private hospital for practicing out of the scope of an RN. The state gave the boss a full copy of the complaint. According to Nebraska Watchdog, McNally had also earlier reported a nurse for stealing IV narcotics meant for patients. The state sent her a confidential letter saying they'd investigate, but they sent it to her work address, where someone opened it before giving it to her.

Imagine what that says to anyone at McNally's facility, and ask yourself if you could see it happening in yours.

If this still isn't hitting home, let's take a situation with two nurses, both of whom we would rate as “B-” nurses. They're fine, but not superstars. Both of them witness their boss, at different times, showing up with dilated pupils, increasing forgetfulness and bad charting. They begin to suspect an alcohol problem.

One nurse files a complaint; the other doesn't. The boss — who receives the complaint with reporting nurse's' name and is now in an alcohol-induced rage — promptly puts the nurse on a “performance improvement plan” and fires her six months later.

When the news hits the staff, there are murmurs of “well, she wasn't that great anyway.”

That, of course, would be missing the point.

We tend to believe healthcare workers want to help others, and do the right thing. But we also have to create cultures in which “protecting one's own” doesn't stymie whistleblowers from coming forward. I'm not always for more government regulation, but if we can't do that, expect to see more bills such as the one in Nebraska.

Elizabeth Leis Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's. Follow her @TigerELN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

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 Marty Stempniak.