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Impostor nurses infecting Arizona
High demand exacerbates problem

Sherry Anne Rubiano
The Arizona Republic

The number of people caught posing as nurses in Arizona has doubled over the past two years and continues to rise in the midst of a national nursing shortage.

Impostor nurses are applying for jobs all over the state, from a senior-living home in Tucson to a Phoenix hospital. Some impostors have no nursing credentials. Others overstate their credentials.

The potential for harm is significant, say nursing managers as nurses provide critical care.

In 2001 and 2002, the Arizona State Board of Nursing, the organization that verifies nurse licenses, found seven impostor nurses each year. In 2003, there were 14. Last year the total was 29. For this year, as of Wednesday, there have been 12 impostors.

Though it is illegal to pose and practice as a nurse without a license, experts say more people are trying because of the high demand, good pay and incentives used to attract nurses to Arizona.

With that kind of market, "you're going to see people who are going to look for opportunities," said Dawn Kappel, director of marketing and communications for the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

And this isn't just a problem in Arizona. It has happened in other states, including New York and Maryland.

The typical impostor has some previous health care education or experience, but the license may have been revoked or only valid in another state.

Not all impostors manage to get jobs and interact with patients as employers often catch them during the hiring process. In response, the board is urging employers to check applicants' original documents.

In most cases, impostor nurses are faking documents or credentials to land jobs.

In June, Phoenix resident Marcia Myers submitted an online application to Phoenix Baptist Hospital for a position as an emergency room nurse, according to board records. On the application, she said she had a registered nurse's license and had prior experience in Michigan and Tennessee.

Myers accepted a position at the hospital and began orientation in June. When she didn't submit a nursing license document, her employer contacted the board. It turned out Myers didn't hold a license.

Misrepresenting oneself as a nurse is a Class 6 felony. The state tries to prosecute impostors, typically when there is enough evidence to charge someone with an offense, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

A grand jury charged Myers last month with one count of fraud and two counts of forgery, according to Maricopa County Superior Court records.

In September, Nancy Volk was convicted in Maricopa County Superior Court of unlawfully representing herself as a nurse and for writing fake information on a job application.

Volk's nursing license was revoked in 1997. In 2003, she applied for employment with Cross Country Local, a nursing employment agency, and was placed at Mesa General Hospital's surgical unit, court records show. Volk was sentenced to four years' probation, 60 days in jail and had to pay more than $17,000.

There have been two recent cases in other states involving impostor nurses.

In New York, a woman who posed as a registered nurse and provided care at a nursing home was sentenced in April to six months in jail.

In Maryland, a man pleaded guilty this month to practicing and misrepresenting himself as a licensed practical nurse. The man did not have a nursing license, but he had worked at an Annapolis facility that provides services for developmentally disabled clients.

The strong market for qualified nurses is a tempting target for people who pose as nurses.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1 million nurses will be needed by 2012.

An entry-level registered nurse can expect to start out earning up to $27 per hour, about $56,000 a year, not including signing bonuses and overtime pay that can boost their base pay, according to the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.

Karen Rizzo, director at Bayada Nurses, a licensed home health agency in Tucson, said it's lucrative for people to pretend to be nurses.

"People are desperate," Rizzo said. "They know we need to hire people."

More impostors are using fake documents when applying for jobs. Some use another nurse's license as their own or change the expiration date on their own license.

They also overstate their credentials, saying they are registered nurses when they are in fact licensed practical nurses. A registered nurse has completed more education and can perform more clinical procedures than a licensed practical nurse.

Valerie Smith is the Arizona Board of Nursing's associate director of complaints and investigations. She said employers are not required to check the original document, so impostors have often altered copies of documents.

When an impostor nurse is discovered in Arizona, employers contact the Board of Nursing. Board investigators check their records to see if the person's license number belongs to the individual. When they find out that the person is impersonating a nurse, the board sends a letter to tell that person to stop practicing. They then refer most cases to the the Attorney General's Office.

The nursing boards only have jurisdiction over licensed nurses, so they cannot discipline the impostors or press charges.

Kappel said Arizona is one of the leading states when it comes to identifying impostor nurses and making that information available to the public. Texas is another, and the state even posts photos of the impostors on a Web site.

As of this month, the Arizona Board of Nursing Web site, www.azbn.org, lists 89 impostors in cases back to 1991.

Employers may also go to the Web site and enter an applicant's name or nursing license number to see if it's valid.

Kappel said it's difficult to track the number of impostors on a national level or to compare the numbers in Arizona to other states because some impostor nurses fall in between the cracks.

In many states, it's not the job of the nursing board to find impostor nurses, she said. Also, impostor nurses who are already working in a hospital may not get caught until something triggers suspicion.