Probe announced as staffing storages are predicted among top concerns in health care this year.
Fraudulent nursing diplomas could lead to 20 years of prison time for 25 defendants accused of selling more than 7,600 phony credentials across at least five states.
Three nursing schools are closed and charges were filed as part of “Operation Nightingale,” an investigation unveiled Jan. 25 by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Investigators said the defendants sold bogus diplomas and transcripts for people to obtain licenses and jobs as registered nurses and licensed practical or vocational nurses.
“Health care fraud is nothing new to South Florida, as many scammers see this as a way to earn easy, though illegal, money,” FBI Miami Acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough said in the DOJ news release. “What is disturbing about this investigation is that there are over 7,600 people around the country with fraudulent nursing credentials who are potentially in critical health care roles treating patients. Were it not for the diligence and hard work of the investigators on this case, the extent of this fraud may not have been discovered.”
The investigation comes as 2023 opened with staffing concerns, including availability of nurses, among the top problems for physicians’ practices and across health care overall. Medical Economics readers named it among the top five administrative challenges this year. Investigators said the operation involved search warrants in at least five states: Florida, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Texas. It was unclear if the nurses with fake diplomas worked directly in primary care. DOJ records indicated health care providers that hired them included a hospital in Georgia, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers in Maryland and New York, skilled nursing care facilities in Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, a rehabilitation facility in New York, an assisted living facility in New Jersey, and home health facilities in Massachusetts and Texas.
The schools are closed but court records indicated the alleged schemes dated from various times from April 2016 to October 2021.
The schools involved were Siena College, which was licensed by the Florida Commission for Independent Education and the Florida Board of Nursing; the Palm Beach School of Nursing, and Sacred Heart International Institute, which was licensed by the Florida Board of Nursing.
The defendants include various recruiters who solicited people seeking nursing credentials, and the school owners and managers for allegedly creating and distributing fall transcripts and diplomas stating the aspiring candidates attended the schools and completed the needed courses and clinicals to obtain the diplomas, according to DOJ.
“In fact, the aspiring nurses never completed the necessary courses and clinicals,” the DOJ announcement said. The investigators disclosed federal bills of indictment and bills of information alleging wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
“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,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe said in the news release. “A fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our health care system.”
For more information about reporting health care fraud to the DOJ and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), visit hhs.gov.
Incidentally, DOJ confirmed the operation name was chosen deliberately in honor of the historic figure Florence Nightingale, widely acknowledged as the founder of modern nursing. HHS-OIG Special Agent in Charge Omar Perez Aybar called her “the 19th century founder of modern nursing’s standards for the safe, quality care of patients.”