California regulators have announced emergency measures to investigate the criminal backgrounds of all registered nurses in the state, days after The Times reported that dozens of nurses had kept their licenses for years despite multiple convictions.
Effective immediately, the state nursing board will ask all nurses renewing their licenses whether they have been convicted of any crimes in recent years, said Carrie Lopez, director of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees more than 30 professional licensing agencies.
The Board of Registered Nursing must also develop emergency regulations to obtain fingerprints from all nurses licensed before 1990.
Fingerprinting has been required for nurses licensed since that year, allowing law enforcement agencies to flag the nursing board any time a nurse is arrested.
But until now, nurses licensed earlier -- about 40% of the active nurses in California -- had escaped scrutiny.
In written answers Friday to questions from The Times, Lopez said the new regulations would have to be approved by the state's Office of Administrative Law.
She said she anticipated that all nurses who have not been fingerprinted will have to do so when renewing after March 1.
Lopez said she has also directed her staff to develop legislation expanding the requirement to other state licensing boards.
"We are taking swift action to provide additional consumer protections through all of our boards, including the Board of Registered Nursing," she said in a statement earlier this week.
To support the new requirements, the state plans to reallocate staff to more closely scrutinize applicants, Lopez wrote Friday.
If necessary, she said, her agency will seek to hire additional investigators.
Former state Sen. Liz Figueroa, who oversaw professional licensing boards in the Legislature until 2006, called the department's response a "needed step."
"There's no sense in having the boards unless you're going to allow them to do the work," she said.
"They just can't be out there issuing licenses unless you make them accountable and you have the tools to investigate."
Lopez also said a nursing board official erred last week in saying legislative approval might be required to ask nurses renewing their licenses about convictions.
The board, she said, "has and has had the authority to require applicants seeking renewal of their license to identify whether they've been convicted of a crime."
The question will be included on applications beginning this month. Anyone seeking an initial license is already asked about convictions.
Lopez said she will step in if the nursing board fails to protect the public.