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March 15, 2023

Operation Nightingale: Do Your Nurses Have Fraudulent Diplomas?

Nurses play a critical role in the healthcare system. To qualify for positions, they need to meet strict education and licensing requirements, which ensure they have the skills and knowledge to provide adequate patient care. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Operation Nightingale has recently uncovered a massive scheme that sold fraudulent diplomas and transcripts to thousands of individuals, allowing them to bypass some of the requirements for nurses and potentially putting patients in danger.

7,600 Fake Nursing Diplomas

Operation Nightingale was a multistate enforcement action undertaken by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG) and law enforcement.

Investigators discovered a scheme in which individuals obtained nursing degree diplomas and transcripts from accredited nursing schools in Florida and sold them to aspiring Registered Nurses and Licensed Practical/Vocation Nurses. The buyers were then able to take the nursing board exam. If they passed, they could obtain a nursing license without having ever completed the educational requirements.

Operation Nightingale uncovered at least 7,600 fake nursing diplomas and transcripts that were sold to aspiring nurses. Although the nursing schools involved were all based in Florida, the scheme also involved people in Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Texas.

The U.S. Department of Justice says the three schools involved in the scheme were Siena College in Broward County, Palm Beach School of Nursing in Palm Beach County, and Sacred Heart International Institute in Broward County. All three schools have closed and 25 individuals have been charged.

The Impact on the Healthcare System

Even though the individuals who bought fake degrees had to pass the nursing board exam before they could obtain licensing, they may lack the education and clinical training they need to maintain an adequate level of patient care.

According to Markenzy Lapointe, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, “Not only is this a public safety concern, it also tarnishes the reputation of nurses who actually complete the demanding clinical and course work required to obtain their professional licenses and employment.”

The American Bar Association says the 7,600 aspiring nurses paid a total of $114 million for the fake diplomas. Approximately 2,400 of these individuals were about to pass the exam, become licensed nurses, and obtain employment. Federal officials have said they probably won’t face charges.

However, these individuals do face license revocation. According to 6ABC Action News, 26 nurses in Delaware have been informed that their nursing licenses are being annulled in connection to the scheme uncovered by Operation Nightingale. Additionally, the FBI is working with state nursing boards to identify unqualified nurses in other states.

This May Not Be an Isolated Case

This scheme has shocked many people in the healthcare industry, but the U.S. Department of Justice says crimes like these continue to be a problem.

According to Chad Yarbrough, FBI Miami acting Special Agent in Charge, “Health care fraud is nothing new to South Florida, as many scammers see this as a way to earn easy, though illegal, money.”

The Role of Healthcare Leaders

Many healthcare organizations are dealing with staffing shortages right now. According to Health Affairs, the total supply of registered nurses decreased by more than 100,000 in 2021. This massive drop is much greater than anything else seen in the last four decades. Meanwhile, the demand for nurses continues to grow as the population ages.

Nevertheless, nursing shortages are no excuse for negligent hiring. Healthcare leaders have a duty to take reasonable steps to verify providers have the required training and experience. There are a few things you can do:

  • Vet job applicants thoroughly. Operation Nightingale shows it is possible to fake degrees. When hiring nurses and other healthcare providers, verify credentials, check references, and carry out background checks.
  • Conduct competency assessments. According to Competency Assessment of Nursing Staff, available through the National Library of Medicine, “Competency assessment is an ongoing process of initial development, maintenance of knowledge and skills, educational consultation, remediation, and redevelopment.” Thorough competency assessments can help you confirm the skills of your nursing staff and fill in gaps as needed.
  • Don’t cut corners. Widespread nursing shortages mean healthcare leaders may be eager to hire anyone they can find, but it’s important to maintain standards and ensure you don’t task nurses with duties beyond their training. Organizations that do cut corners may face claims of negligence, which opens the door to medical malpractice lawsuits.
  • Document your efforts. If you are sued for negligence in hiring, the documentation of your efforts could be important to your legal defense.

Operation Nightingale is a good reminder of why solid liability insurance is important for healthcare organizations. Heffernan Insurance Brokers can help you secure customized medical malpractice coverage. Learn more.

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