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Officials are trying to track down nurses with fake degrees from Fla. scheme

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Florida, more nursing schools are under investigation in connection to a $100 million scheme to sell fake nursing diplomas. Federal investigators initially zeroed in on three schools, and now the state is looking into seven others. As Peter Haden reports, officials in all 50 states are working to track down thousands of allegedly fraudulent nurses.

PETER HADEN, BYLINE: Inside a hospital room, a patient has got a huge gash on her forehead and blood trickling down into her left eye.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Oh, my God. What's happening?

HADEN: What's happening is a simulation. The patient is a high-tech mannequin, and she's surrounded by a half dozen third-year nursing students in Navy blue scrubs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Students, say hi.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Hello.

HADEN: This is a typical day at the Clinical Skills Simulation Center at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. For more than four decades, this public institution has been training nurses in the science of caring and treatment. Sindiana Echeverri is an emergency room nurse and the assistant director of this lab. She says these simulations are one tool educators use to equip these future nurses with the skills they'll need to do the job.

SINDIANA ECHEVERRI: Inserting catheters to get urine, blood draws, something as simple as opening a box and pulling the fluid. If they don't see it, they've never done it.

HADEN: For decades, nursing students have attended highly regarded and board-certified schools like FAU, but thousands of other nurses now practicing around the country didn't do it, as in they didn't go to nursing school. No classrooms, no clinicals, no nothing. According to federal investigators, they just bought fake nursing degrees instead for around $15,000 each, then used those credentials as a shortcut to obtain state nursing licenses. The feds say more than 2,100 fraudulent nurses may be working in the U.S. So far, they've been located in nearly a dozen states. Markenzy Lapointe is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

MARKENZY LAPOINTE: When we talk about a nurse's education and credentials, shortcut is not a word we want to use.

HADEN: In January, the Justice Department charged 25 people in five states connected to the alleged scheme. The investigation found evidence that between 2016 and 2021, the defendants sold more than 7,600 phony diplomas from three formerly accredited South Florida nursing schools. Siena College and Sacred Heart International Institute in Broward County and the Palm Beach School of Nursing.

So this is it - 2695 North Military Trail in West Palm Beach. It is a strip mall. There's a wig store...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ambulance.

HADEN: ...A little cell phone shop, a Hebrew Pentecostal church and a Dollar General. And there's also a little chiropractor shop right in the corner. This was the home of the former Palm Beach School of Nursing.

Court documents show that in 2021, an undercover FBI employee went into an office in Fort Lauderdale and was offered an associate's degree in the science of nursing for $16,000. The diploma and transcripts arrived less than two weeks later from Palm Beach School of Nursing, showing a 3.4 grade point average.

ERICA: To have someone that has never attended nursing school taking care of you or your loved one is terrifying. It's truly a public safety issue.

HADEN: This is Nurse Erica. She's a registered nurse and a vocal advocate for nurses on social media. We're withholding her last name because she's been the target of harassment. The three South Florida schools are now closed, and the defendants face up to 20 years in prison. Of the 7,600 students federal authorities say purchased fake nursing credentials, more than a quarter were able to obtain state medical licenses. Now there's a nationwide search underway to find them. The feds know who they are. Authorities gave their names to all 50 state boards of nursing. Now it's their job to investigate and take action against any of the nurses in their states. I compared notes with Nurse Erica.

ERICA: Twenty-six in Delaware.

HADEN: One in Kentucky.

ERICA: Multiple in Texas.

HADEN: Twenty-two in Georgia.

ERICA: Arizona has admitted to about ten.

HADEN: And the list goes on. Federal prosecutors say the three Florida schools were once properly certified and graduated students using legitimate training. But at some point, according to authorities, those schools began accepting payments in exchange for backdated nursing credentials without a student stepping foot into a classroom. More than 900 New York nurses who studied at the Florida schools have been asked by state officials to prove their credentials.

ERICA: A lot of states, in particular Florida, are being radio silent about this entire issue. And that is very concerning.

HADEN: The Florida Department of Health did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. Washington state has been transparent about its search.

PAULA MEYER: We knew that this was large. We knew that it was sophisticated. And we knew that we needed to take action.

HADEN: Paula Meyer is executive director of the Washington state Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission. It identified 150 people, either nurses or applicants, who had graduated from the three Florida schools.

MEYER: Some of those people had legitimate degrees.

HADEN: But with others, there were red flags, especially with some of the transcripts.

MEYER: Some of them didn't have the seal. Some of them didn't have the address of the school. Some of them had different fonts on them.

HADEN: So the commission has been investigating each case. And that takes time. So far in Washington, 17 nurses have had their licenses rescinded. In Georgia, five nurses under scrutiny say they plan to fight to keep their licenses. They contend their credentials are legitimate. Attorney Hannah Williams, a nurse herself, is representing them.

HANNAH WILLIAMS: My clients wish to be differentiated from individuals who fraudulently obtained their degrees. And they are hopeful that there will be a fair investigation that allows them to tell their side of the story.

HADEN: There is one group of people in a mighty rush to rip the Band-Aid off this whole scandal, nurses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE #1: The folks that bought those nursing degrees should go to jail.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE #2: People need to go to jail.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE #3: Straight to jail.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE #4: Immediate jail.

HADEN: That's a sample of the exasperation nurses posted in videos to social media. Federal authorities say the students who allegedly bought diplomas won't be criminally charged. Regina Callion is a registered nurse in Ohio and a nurse educator.

REGINA CALLION: The public for decades have respected us, have valued us to be honest and truthful. We're the top most trusted profession. Nobody could touch us. That has changed. Why? Because the public now has this idea that a lot of nurses take shortcuts.

HADEN: Officials indicate many of the students that purchased degrees in the alleged scheme were Haitian American or African immigrants.

GWEN RANDALL: Are you the real nurse? Are you the fake nurse? Somebody did say that to me.

HADEN: Dr. Gwen Randall is a nurse anesthetist in South Florida and a member of the National Black Nurses Association. She says transparency by state boards of nursing could help allay some of that patient anxiety. Federal authorities say the investigation has found no harm caused by any suspect nurses to patients so far. For NPR News, I'm Peter Hayden in West Palm Beach, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Haden