Schwarzenegger’s budget calls for increased policing of healthcare workers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Friday for 107 new investigative staffers to improve the discipline of errant nurses and other health professionals, a rare push for more in a budget proposing less in almost every area.

The $12.8-million spending request came as Schwarzenegger proposed deep cuts throughout state government for the fiscal 2011 budget. If approved, the additional staff would be paid from the individual budgets of healthcare boards, which are supported by licensing fees.

The money would not come from the cash-strapped general fund.

The governor’s proposal follows reports last year by The Times and the nonprofit news organization ProPublica detailing how it took on average more than three years to resolve complaints against registered nurses, even those accused of serious misconduct.

Administration officials say they are committed to reducing the time it takes to investigate and discipline problem caregivers to an average of 12 to 18 months.

“We believe this is an intelligent investment,” said Brian Stiger, director of the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees 19 health-related boards. He said next year’s funding increase would be followed by another chunk of money in the fiscal 2012 budget to improve the boards’ computer database systems and further expand the staff.

As it stands now, cases from most health boards are referred to a central division of sworn investigators in the Consumer Affairs Department. Those workers have law enforcement training and carry badges and guns.

But if the budget proposal is approved by the Legislature, boards would get their own non-sworn staff to pursue most cases. These employees cost less, require less training and aren’t as sought-after as those with police skills.

Under the proposal, the Board of Registered Nursing would add 18 such investigators, along with a dozen complaint analysts, supervisors and consultants.

Its overall budget would increase nearly 28% in the next fiscal year, to $29.9 million.

Ornstein and Weber are senior reporters at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom in New York.