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Shipley, Ford Overstepped Legislative Role, Not Law: Nashville DA

Davidson County’s district attorney general on Monday defended probing two state lawmakers for political wrongdoing, even after an investigation by Tennessee’s most powerful law enforcement agency revealed nothing deemed worthy of criminal prosecution.

Victor S. “Torry” Johnson III told reporters Monday that Reps. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, and Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, were “particularly heavy handed” in convincing the state nursing board to reverse disciplinary action against three nurses, but they broke no laws.

“Where it gets complicated is it’s a free country,” District Attorney General Johnson told reporters in his Nashville office.

“They are legislators, and they can certainly make inquiries, but it seems to me there’s a fine line about where you make inquiries and where maybe you are overstepping what ought to be your proper role as a legislator and really try to force a conclusion and override what really is the process that is in place to protect the public.”

He continued, “When you start introducing legislation, or interfere with legislation that might lead to the reauthorization of the board, or when you file legislation to provide that the legislature somehow would oversee these things, that just seems to me you’re using legislation as sort of a club.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched an inquiry on June 22 into the two lawmakers and employees within the state Health Department to determine if they had committed any crimes, including misconduct and false reporting, in pressuring the Nursing Board to revisit their decision to discipline the nurse practitioners.

The three had been accused of over-prescribing medications contributing to the death of patients at the now-defunct Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City.

Shipley and Ford have each acknowledged filing or supporting legislation to alter the board makeup or its oversight, or moving to shut the board down in an effort to convince the body to reconsider its actions. Both lawmakers have consistently maintained they did nothing wrong.

Ultimately, disciplinary actions against the nurses were reversed, although the TBI has yet to close its investigation into the actions of the three nurses.

Now that the district attorney has concluded there are no criminal charges to file, Shipley says he wants a legislative probe into where the original complaints came from and whether the state could pursue charges against the individuals who issued “fabricated” allegations.

“It had to be exaggerated in order to get the district attorney to act, and it’s just unfortunate that these people have wasted thousands of dollars of the taxpayer’s money by having this investigation,” Shipley told TNReport.

“So we’re going to inquire as to the cost and time spent by TBI and the DAs office and all that. I think as a minimum, the person who orchestrated this ought to reimburse the state for the expenses we incurred,” he added. “In a pre-election year when we’re trying to raise money, raising the concerns about the ethics of legislators, it’s not a healthy thing for us, and I intend for it to not be a healthy thing for the person that did it, if I can figure out who did it.”

Johnson said he has no intention to go after anyone who filed complaints against the two legislators.

“Nothing that I’m saying says it (was) a false complaint,” said Johnson. “In the end, I did not feel that the activities of the legislators — while I’ve obviously been critical of them  — I didn’t think they amounted to a crime. But that doesn’t mean that the initial complaints were false.”

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TBI ‘Pretty Close’ To Wrapping Up Probe Into Shipley, Ford

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is almost finished with its investigation  into two state representatives accused of misconduct in a case involving three disciplined nurses, according to a spokeswoman for the law enforcement agency.

Once the investigation is completed, it will be turned over to District Attorney Torry Johnson, who earlier this year requested the TBI look into the dealings of Reps. Tony Shipley and Dale Ford and the Department of Health.

“We’re pretty close to finishing up and giving the entire case file to him to review,” TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm told TNReport this week. She said the investigation is open.

Johnson asked the TBI to investigate whether the two East Tennessee lawmakers used political influence to improperly pressure the board into reinstating the licenses of three nurse practitioners.

The nurse practitioners had been accused of over-prescribing medications contributing to the death of patients at the now-defunct Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City. The investigation into the three nurses is still open, and District Attorney Tony Clark is still reviewing the case, according to the TBI. The nurses have not been charged.

Shipley and Ford, both Republicans, had each acknowledged filing legislation to alter the board makeup or its oversight or move to shut the board down. Ford told the Associated Press that his wife was a clinic patient and his sister worked at the center.

“I perceive this whole effort to be a means to intimidate a legislator, to prevent him from doing his constitutional duty. And guess what, it’s not going to work,” Shipley told TNReport Tuesday at the Capitol.

“Everything that I have proposed, I’m going to continue to do, and those who are shooting at me will have to answer for that at some point,” he said.

Shipley chairs a committee that has significant influence over the state Board of Nursing. That Government Operations subcommittee on education, health and general welfare met Wednesday.

The panel voted to keep the board active for another two years but change rules pertaining to who can serve on the board and how it operates.

Shipley led the charge as he and other lawmakers quizzed board representatives on how it deals with complaints against nurses suspected of wrongdoing, but not charged, much less convicted by a court — like the three nurses whose cases triggered TBI’s investigation.

Lawmakers also asked how far the board goes to make sure it implements laws with the Legislature’s intent at heart, an issue that landed the board in hot water with lawmakers last session.

“I want you to understand that we’re not here to beat you up. That’s not what we’re trying to do at all. We’re trying to understand the process because when we come out of this, we want it to be better,” Shipley said to nurses at the subcommittee meeting.

The Tennessee Nurses Association, which represents 83,000 registered nurses, agreed with the proposed changes to be written into legislation extending the life of the board. The plan came in part from a recent sit-down with Shipley.

“We are very comfortable with this amendment,” Executive Director Sharon Adkins said, who added she is also happy with the work of the Board of Nursing. “We are very pleased with our discussion with Rep. Shipley and the resulting amendment that came forward.”

Expected provisions include:

  • One board member to come from each of the nine congressional districts.
  • At least one member to be a licensed practical nurse.
  • At least one member to be a consumer.
  • At least one member must be at least 60 years old.
  • At least one member must belong to an ethnic minority.
  • No more than three members may come from from academic settings.
  •  In appointing members, the governor shall consider people from various medical backgrounds.
  • Seven members must be physically present for any decision to suspend a nurse.
  • No member may serve more than eight consecutive years.
  • Members will be appointed by the governor from a list of candidates recommended by respective organizations such as the Tennessee Nurses Association.

The legislation, and decision to renew the Board of Nurses, now moves to the full Government Operations committees in the House and Senate, which are expected to take up the issue in the spring 2012 legislative session.

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Health Care

Lawmakers Want State Nursing Board Sedated

Many legislators are unhappy with the Tennessee Board of Nursing for ignoring a law passed last year, and are suggesting an appropriate remedy to that rebelliousness would be to shorten the amount of time members of the board can serve.

The Tennessee Legislature and state Board of Nursing have been dueling since Rep. Debra Maggart pushed a bill last year that would let a new class of nurses issue medications to nursing home patients. Members of the nursing board refused to implement the new law the way the Legislature intended, saying they were charged with interpreting the law the best it could to protect the public.

Feeling slighted, the Hendersonville Republican fired back with a new bill this year clarifying some legal language to force the board to accept the law the way she intended it — a measure that won easy majorities in both chambers.

The 11-member Board of Nursing is responsible for granting nursing licenses and mandates what curriculum is appropriate for nursing education programs. It also interprets the law to determine standards of nursing practice then investigates and disciplines nurses who violate them.

Lawmakers complained about the board from the House floor last week, including Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who said the board “openly defied state law” and created an “inordinate amount of aggravation” to the House Health and Human Resources Committee this year.

“It seems to be more of an attitude problem than them not following their statutory obligations,” said Rep. Susan Lynn, a Mt. Juliet Republican who is carrying a bill that would shorten the amount of time appointed nurses can sit on the board.

“They were definitely disrespecting the opinion of the legislature,” said Lynn. “They were writing the rules as they saw fit.”

Lynn is sponsoring a bill — which passed on a 81-5 vote last week — to insert at least a four year break after the second term. Currently, members are allowed to serve three four-year terms, but some have been known to serve a different seat on the board which renews their number of terms.

The bill also seeks to ban members from serving in multiple capacities to stretch out the term of service and delay the board’s sunset date until 2016.

Shortening up how long members can serve on the board will loosen the board’s power grip and sense of entitlement, Lynn said.

The board has been doing its job reviewing licenses and hearing alleged violations, she said, but “attitude” is the problem. “It’s hard to legislate that,” said Lynn. “The best remedy I can think of is let’s move some of these people out and lets get new people in.”

To some lawmakers, that’s not enough: They’d rather see the board dissolved altogether. “It’s like a bunch of witches on a witch hunt,” Rep. Dale Ford, a Republican from Jonesborough, said last week. “As far as I’m concerned, we don’t need to extend this. We need to cut it.”

The Board of Nursing’s chairwoman said the body never meant to ruffle any feathers.

“I’m so hurt by the misunderstanding. I’m genuinely hurt,” said Cheryl Stegbauer, Board of Nursing president. The criticisms of the board on the House floor last week were quite stinging, she said, particularly “witches” comment.

“I think the misunderstanding has be perpetuated, the belief that we are arrogant and don’t care,” said Stegbauer.

She said the board interpreted the bill on nursing home medication givers after watching video of from of Sen. Diane Black pitching her bill on the Senate floor last year and made its best judgment off her testimony.

But Stegbauer said she’s in favor of the eight-year term limit for board membership but says she can’t conceive how the state could get by licensing 107,000 nurses, overseeing 63 education programs and conducting disciplinary hearings without a board in place.