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Nurses accused of stealing drugs face inconsistent punishments from board

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indiana nurses accused of abusing or stealing drugs face inconsistent punishments from the state board that governs them, a year-long I-Team 8 investigation has uncovered.

The I-Team 8 investigation found nurses accused of stealing prescription pain pills were more often granted probation on their license and allowed to return to work – potentially putting themselves or other patients at risk, state officials concede.

Our investigation examined hundreds of cases, including three years’ worth of nursing board minutes and nearly 800 nursing renewal applications. What we found: Indiana nurses accused of alcohol or drug-related offenses between 2014 and 2017 resulted in 115 of them being given probation as opposed to 45 cases of suspensions.

What’s more – the program director for the Indiana State Nursing Assistance Program acknowledged in an interview that the board’s rulings can be “subjective.”

“There’s no question, the board is made up of 9 individuals… so depending on the day, there could be some subjective feelings that come into place when decisions are made,” said Chuck Lindquist, the INSNAP program director.

ISNAP acts as the middle man in steering impaired nurses towards monitoring or recovery programs for drug and alcohol abuse. Lindquist said that often times if the board finds a nurse accused of stealing is actively seeking treatment and in compliance with that, he or she is often granted probation.

But that’s not always the case.

A closer look at cases between 2014 to 2017 of nurses suspected of stealing drugs reveals inconsistency in how the nurses were punished:

  • In one case, a male nurse was found lying unconscious with vials of fentanyl beside him and used syringes. But because he had been successful in his addiction recovery, records show the Indiana Attorney General’s Office cut him a deal and he was granted probation by the nursing board as part of settlement agreement in which nurses often pay fines and attend continuing education courses.
  • In another case, a female nurse admitted to “taking several doses of narcotics each time she worked.” Despite admitted to the theft, the state board of nursing granted her a probationary status on her license that allowed her to return to work with patients.
  • In a third case, a nurse accused of stealing was fired from St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis after diverting drugs for nearly a year; she was then hired by Johnson Memorial Hospital where she continued to allegedly steal. Her license was suspended but she later given probation.

Melissa Palazzo also stole drugs.

But unlike those other cases, her license was initially renewed by the board as “active to practice” pending the outcome of an Office of Attorney General investigation.

In 2013, Palazzo stole Suboxone from the Jeffersonville, Ind. drug treatment facility where she worked and gave it to her boyfriend who sold it, according to court records.

By 2014, nursing board minutes show the board knew Melissa Palazzo had been terminated for stealing drugs and charged with a crime. But instead of suspending her or giving her probation at that time, the board renewed her license to allow the state’s attorney general to continue to investigate.

Instead of suspending her license, the Indiana board of nursing renewed it in early December of 2014 – allowing Palazzo to return to work knowing she stole drugs.  In fact, the Indiana Attorney General’s Office didn’t file a complaint against her license until December of 2015 – months after she’d pleaded guilty in criminal court and complied with an ISNAP monitoring agreement.

By July 2016, the board changed its mind – deciding to suspend Melissa’s license for three years.

“She’s a thief, she’s a liar and she’s a risk to her patients,” said one board member during her July 2016 hearing.

Nearly a year after her license was suspended, Melissa Palazzo says she’s still reeling from that day.

“I was a damn good nurse… I know I was a damn good nurse, I feel like that was taken from me,” Palazzo said. “It’s not like this three or four times, this was a first, a once and only mistake.”

Melissa says she attempted to work as a home health aide but can’t after a car wreck led to a shoulder injury. She admits that stealing the drugs was her fault but wonders if there is some shared blame.

“Nursing was my life. I am so ashamed of what I did, I let family down. I let myself down,” she said.

The director of the Indiana board of nursing refused to agree to an interview or to answer our questions about these inconsistent rulings via email.

It’s not just the rulings themselves; nurses we interviewed complained about the length of time it takes for cases before the board are resolved.

Jeremy Brilliant, the director of communication for the Indiana Attorney General’s Office, said more resources might need to be devoted.

“If you are finding that the system isn’t working the way it should, that’s something that needs to be addressed,” he said.

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