Democratic lawmakers and health care advocates are calling on Gov. Chris Christie to "immediately" address what they say is a crisis in the state's nursing industry fueled by years of neglect.
They contend that the state Board of Nursing, one of the busiest boards in the state, is understaffed and underfunded so badly that it has led to a months-long backlog of licenses and certifications for nurses and health aides. And it has happened over the last few years, when the demand for nursing has increased, they said.
"Clearly we have a crisis of neglect," Sen. Bob Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, said during a Monday news conference he led with Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, his vice chair on the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee. They said they plan to convene the committee to look into the nursing issues, which Weinberg called an "appalling situation."
The Christie administration sees it much differently. In a four-page letter sent to lawmakers Monday morning, Steven C. Lee, director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, went point by point through what he called misinformation and misleading suggestions about the board in an effort to "set the record straight."
The nursing board oversees the licensing and certification of roughly 200,000 nurses and home health aides and the regulations they must follow. But the board has been gutted and neglected, advocates said. There are six vacancies on the 13-member board, the deputy executive director position has been open for about a year and the executive director is scheduled to resign on Aug. 11. The vacancies have limited the board's ability to carry out basic functions, the advocates said, such as dealing with disciplinary complaints or even meeting with a quorum. Gordon and Weinberg called for Christie to fill the vacancies.
The advocates said that the shortages have led to a massive backlog — more than 4,000 people are currently waiting for their nursing license or certification, many of them waiting for months. Meanwhile, hundreds of disciplinary issues that come up each month are piling up, said Avery
"It's just a disgrace," Dr. Avery Hart, a board member, said. "The standards are going down."
The problems could be remedied with funding, the advocates said. Roughly $13 million a year is collected in fees from the nurses and health aides, but much of that money has been diverted to the general budget, they said.
Lee said it "is not true" that the state has funneled fee money back to the budget. However, law allows the transfer of "excess" funds from boards to go to other divisions, and that has happened with the nursing board.
Lee also rejected the claims of backlogs and dwindling resources at the nursing board. Around this time of year, as nursing schools graduate thousands of students, the board receives between 2,000 and 4,000 applications for licenses and certifications. For a "short period of time," he said, the average processing time for applications "increases by several weeks," but the typical wait time in normal circumstances is less than a week.
As for the leadership vacancies, Lee said they do not impact licensing or the day-to-day operations of the board and that the board has been able to meet with a quorum. And he contends that a range of reforms over the last two years have improved the board's operations, including shorter wait times for license application processing and increased efficiency through online applications.
"The commitment of significant resources and the hard work of division staff led to unprecedented improvements in the licensure process for nurses and the certification process for CHHA's," Lee wrote, using the acronym for certified home health aides, "which have benefited all members of the nursing and CHHA professions and those that employ them and utilize their services."
In a joint statement later on Monday, Gordon and Weinberg expressed dissatisfaction with Lee's response.
“These are serious allegations and unfortunately the response by the director only raises more questions. In fact, the letter does not dispute that they could have 4,000 in-state and out-of-state pending applications," they said. "We will get to the bottom of this issue."
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