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Brown vetoes bill to extend California nursing board

Gov. Jerry Brown has pulled the plug — at least temporarily — on the already beleaguered agency that oversees the state’s registered nurses by vetoing a bill that would have extended the agency’s powers.

The authority of the California Board of Registered Nursing to license and discipline the state’s nearly 400,000 registered nurses will expire Jan. 1. The powers would have been extended another four years under a seemingly routine “sunset bill" passed by the Legislature. But Brown vetoed the bill over the weekend, saying he objected to a provision that would have added to the state’s pension costs.

The clause classified certain investigators working for the board as peace officers and was intended to speed up the investigations of complaints against nurses by giving the investigators subpoena power and access to criminal records statewide. But it also would have entitled these investigators to more generous pensions.

In his veto message, Brown wrote, “This makes no sense fiscally and flies in the face of much needed pension reform…The Board has existed for 106 years without these enhanced benefits and should continue to do so.”

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The veto, first reported by the online news organization California Watch, means that the nursing board will cease to exist at the end of the year unless the powers are reinstated.

State Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles), author of the sunset bill, called on his colleagues to enact legislation that “addresses the governor’s concerns” either in a special session or as soon as they return from recess in January.

Melissa Figueroa, a spokeswoman for the State and Consumer Services Agency, said that if the board is not reinstated before January, the nursing board’s functions and staff will be temporarily folded into the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which now oversees the board.

Brown, in his veto message, called on the Legislature to pass a new bill as soon as possible.

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At a nursing board committee meeting Wednesday, staff and board members expressed shock at the governor’s action.

Board executive officer Louise Bailey said the board had been unaware that the governor had a concern about the sworn investigators and that the issue could have been easily resolved.

“We were not adamant about having sworn peace officers,” she said. “It would have been an easy fix had we known that was their concern.”

But the governor’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ashford, said Brown had expressed his concerns about the bill before he vetoed it. The Department of Finance also wrote a letter opposing the bill because of the pension issue.

The veto is the latest blow to an agency that has been scrambling to repair a reputation tarnished by lapses in oversight and long delays in addressing serious complaints.

Two years ago, an investigation by The Times and the investigative news organization ProPublica found that the board was not identifying many nurses who had criminal convictions or had been in trouble in other states.

The probe also found that investigations into allegations of egregious misconduct, including patient neglect and drug stealing, often dragged on for years while the nurses remained free to practice.

The revelations led to a major shake-up in the board’s directors and executive staff. Since then, the new board has carried out reforms intended to catch more problem nurses, including retroactive fingerprinting of nurses licensed before 1990, who had previously been exempt from the requirement.

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Officials also ran information from the files of California’s licensed nurses against a nationwide database to identify nurses who had been disciplined in other states.

The agency reduced the average time taken to investigate and prosecute complaints. At the time of The Times’ investigation in 2009, it took an average of more than three years for complaints against nurses’ licenses to be investigated and adjudicated. The average time was down to two years at the end of the 2011 fiscal year in July.

But it still falls short of the target of 12 to 18 months set by the Department of Consumer Affairs. And recently the state’s fiscal crisis has prevented the board from hiring enforcement staff to keep up with an increasing number of complaints.

Largely because of the new enforcement efforts, the total number of complaints coming into the enforcement division more than doubled between the 2008 to 2011 fiscal years, from 3,900 to 7,977.

At the same time, a statewide hiring freeze imposed in February has hindered the agency’s ability to hire the additional enforcement staff to meet the accelerated deadlines for handling complaints, board officials said.

The board is subject to the hiring freeze although it is not funded by the state’s sinking general fund and recently raised nurses’ licensing fees for the first time in two decades to help pay for the new positions.

abby.sewell@latimes.com


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