Ga. nurses say Secretary of State Kemp putting ‘patients at risk’

Nursing graduates cheer during the conferral of their degrees during a May 2015 commencement at Emory University. A shakeup at the Georgia Board of Nursing, which regulates nursing programs in the state, has the nursing community nervous. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Nursing graduates cheer during the conferral of their degrees during a May 2015 commencement at Emory University. A shakeup at the Georgia Board of Nursing, which regulates nursing programs in the state, has the nursing community nervous. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Editor's note: Within weeks, Kemp altered his plan. Rather than an immediate switch, Kemp said he would make the staffing change graduate over the next year. Many nurses are upset and could approach lawmakers and ask that their board be allowed to leave the Secretary of State's office.

Original story: Three years ago, I reported that the nursing board had a backlog of more than 3,000 unanswered complaints against nurses ranging from medical errors to unlicensed people posing as nurses to drug-addicted nurses stealing narcotics from patients.

Complaints that made it to the board took an average of 15 months to decide, but most spent years in unending holding pattern. Today the board continues to struggle with a massive workload, but things have improved.

In the fiscal year that ends June 30, the board has ruled on 741 complaints, issuing a mix of public and private discipline on nurses that broke the rules. The backlog of unanswered complaints is in the hundreds instead of the thousands, and wait times to resolve those complaints — while still more than a year on average — are down.

So I was surprised to learn that Jim Cleghorn, the board’s executive director since 2010, was being removed by Secretary of State Brian Kemp in exchange for a less experienced director — from the cosmetology board.

I wasn’t the only one surprised. The board members themselves learned just two weeks ago that Cleghorn, whom many on the board give much credit for the recent improvements, was taking his talents to regulate the state’s barbers and beauticians.

Chairwoman Brenda Rowe said the move and lack of consultation by Kemp with the board left her “very, very concerned.”

“It was made unilaterally,” Rowe said at a hastily convened board teleconference Monday. “The board didn’t provide any input into it.”

Board member Dellarie Shilling put her distress in even more stark terms: Kemp is being reckless. Changing directors will hamper the board’s progress, meaning it will take even longer to deal with dangerous nurses.

“I just find it very difficult to say why you would knowingly put patients at risk,” she said to a member of Kemp’s staff.

Georgia Board of Nursing Executive Director Jim Cleghorn talks to nurses after a board meeting on July 21, 2016 in Macon. Secretary of State Brian Kemp wants to replace Cleghorn with the director of the state cosmetology board, but the nursing board is resisting the move. CHRIS JOYNER/CJOYNER@AJC.COM

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Stakes high for nursing in Ga.

Kemp’s pick to head the nursing board is Andrew Turnage, executive director of the Georgia Board of Cosmetology and Barbers. That board is similar to the nursing board in that it licenses and regulates barbers and cosmetologists, but it is fair to say that regulating the nursing profession is significantly more complex and the stakes are very high. After all, a bad haircut grows out, but people literally die at the hands of bad nurses.

The proposed staffing moves come as the nursing board also is losing its nursing education consultant, another key staff member it took years to find and hire. That person submitted her resignation and is leaving at the beginning of July, meaning the new director won’t have her help as he learns the ropes.

Leaning on a state law that gives them specific power to approve its executive director, the board voted unanimously to reject Kemp’s choice.

Kemp’s answer? Too bad. Kemp writes the checks.

“This is not a proposal,” Lisa Durden, director of the professional licensing division of Kemp’s office. “This is a directive from Secretary Kemp. This is what’s best for our agency.”

After the meeting Kemp issued a statement saying he was using his “clear authority under the law” to make staffing decisions. The law Kemp’s office is relying on is one that says he makes staffing decisions “notwithstanding any other provisions of law to the contrary.”

Officially, the explanation for the job switch is for “cross training,” so the boards would be able to operate more efficiently when an executive director leaves or retires. But Kemp’s office has been displeased with the board for some time, which it considers difficult to work with and in a constant turf war with staffers in the professional licensing office.

Brian Kemp: The Republican Secretary of State from Athens has been mentioned as a candidate in the 2018 governor’s race.


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Key legislator disappointed

State Sen. Renee Unterman, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and a nurse herself, started getting word of Kemp’s proposed change last week in concerned emails from nurses around the state. Unterman, R-Buford, discussed the change with Kemp’s staff and said she is “very disappointed” with the decision.

The board has more money and staff than ever before and board members are all working together to manage its massive workload, she said. Now this.

“That director has been fabulous in helping the board reform,” she said. “Why on earth, when you are being more constructive and going in the right direction, do you pull the wheels out from under the wagon?”

For years there has been sentiment among the nursing profession that the board needs to follow the example set by the pharmacy and dental boards, which revolted and left Kemp’s office by convincing lawmakers in 2013 to transfer them to the Department of Community Health. This latest decision only furthers the conversation, Unterman said.

“Don’t you think this gives the nurses ammunition? It gives me ammunition,” she said. “Don’t you think I’m going to write legislation to take the Board of Nursing out? They have plenty of money.”

Private meeting with Kemp Wednesday

Members of the Georgia Association of Nursing Deans and Directors, a coalition of public and private nursing schools across the state, are worried Kemp’s decision will set the regulation of their schools back years. That’s bad news for a state that, like many, suffers from a shortage of trained nurses.

“We have just finally gotten this on track. It feels like we’re going backward in a great way,” said Celia Hay, chair of nursing at LaGrange College.

The nursing board licenses twice as many Georgians and the next largest professional board, and the nurses are exerting pressure on Kemp to rethink.

Representatives from various nursing groups met privately with Kemp Wednesday to air their concerns. After the meeting, Kemp’s office released a letter to board chairwoman Rowe proposing a “six-month transitional period” for Cleghorn to train his replacement. But it’s not at all clear that the proposed compromise will answer the nurses’ complaints.

Linda Streit, dean of the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing at Mercer University, said she was open to a six-month transition, as long as the nursing board — not Kemp — had the final say on whether to accept Turnage as the new executive director.

“Jim Cleghorn should remain as executive director until the board has made this determination,” she said.