Nurses Caught In Florida Fake Diploma Scandal Say Careers Have Been Ruined


By Aleks Phillips

An estimated 7,600 nursing diplomas that were handed out by three schools in Florida were found to be fraudulent by the Department of Justice.

While some students are alleged to have procured those qualifications without the right training, others were unaware of the fraud.

Some of those nurses have now lost their jobs, but are hoping to prove they are qualified.

In late January, the Department of Justice (DoJ) announced it had charged 25 individuals allegedly involved in a fraud scheme to issue fake nursing diplomas in Florida, with an estimated 7,600 such qualifications being handed out.

At the time, it was unclear how many of the students caught up in the scheme were aware of the fraud or were, as Omar Perez Aybar, a Department of Health and Human Service agent, described "willing but unqualified individuals."

Now, two of those "willing but unqualified" nurses have told of the adversity they have faced, losing jobs and livelihoods, and the legal challenge several are planning in the hope they can have their diplomas recognized.

The two nurses, one of whom is involved in the potential litigation, spoke on condition of anonymity, over concerns about the legal sensitivities of the case and their names being linked to the schools, which were closed by investigators because of their alleged involvement in the wire-fraud scheme.

"It's like you can't even mention what school you went to now, just in fear of being blacklisted or outcast," David, not his real name, said. "Everyone thinks everyone that went to these schools paid for their degree, which is not true."

Stuck on the Wrong List

According to the DoJ, three schools—Siena College of Health, Palm Beach School of Nursing and the Sacred Heart International Institute—in south Florida created "false and fraudulent" diplomas and transcripts that nursing students could then purchase.

It said "the aspiring nurses never completed the necessary courses and clinicals" to be qualified—a claim Jamaal R. Jones, a health lawyer in Miami, intends to contest on behalf of his clients.

The diplomas obtained from the schools allowed students to go on to sit nursing board exams and obtain licenses as registered nurses in several U.S. states.

Jones said that affidavits that were "written by the perpetrators of the scheme" had been given to him as part of his investigation, and came with two attachments: the first, list A, gave the names of students "who they say earned their diploma and have valid transcripts," while list B showed those "who they claim have not earned their diploma and that the transcripts themselves are fraudulent."

"Unfortunately, for some of my clients, they find themselves on attachment B," he noted.

David, 42, had attended a school in New York, but transferred to Palm Beach School of Nursing for personal reasons after a co-worker told him about graduating there. He and Angela, also not her real name, would travel from New York once a month, arriving on a Sunday for a full week of studying, before returning to "then go do a 12-hour shift," he said.

"We would go to Palm Beach every month for an entire week to do school and the rest of [the] time [it] was online," David said. "So yes, we did everything that they told us to do at that time in order to get a degree."

Angela, 46, said she did not know the people the DoJ was alleging acquired degrees without proper training, but stressed she and David were not among them. She said: "We were in Florida, every month. Whatever curriculum they asked us to do, we did the curriculum."

Rather than hoping to recover any money from the school, Jones said his clients were seeking to prove that they did not fraudulently obtain their diplomas, so the Board of Nursing may consider re-qualifying them. Otherwise, they face the cost and hardship of going through nursing training again.

"They're really just focused on maintaining their license so they can continue to earn a living," Jones remarked.

The Florida Board of Nursing and the National Council of State Boards of Nursing were approached via email for comment on Thursday.

The DoJ declined to comment when approached.

When the criminal case was first made public by the DoJ, local reports stated that many of the students were migrants who had wished to become legitimate nurses. Jones confirmed this was the case, arguing they had been the victim of a lack of knowledge of the U.S. education system.

"Several of my clients are immigrants—they're not from America, at least one of them doesn't speak English—they're not familiar with higher education here in the United States, and I think they may have been preyed upon for financial gain, and they were unbeknownst to them participating in this illegal enterprise," he said.

"But they were well-intentioned; they wanted to receive the transcript and the training, as well as their diplomas, so they could go and provide nursing services to people that were in need."

'You Don't Know When It's Your Last Paycheck'

Healthcare providers who employed nurses with diplomas that turned out to be false included veterans' affairs medical centers in New York and Maryland; an assisted living facility that cared for elderly patients in New Jersey; and a hospital in Georgia, court documents show. Providers for Medicare, Medicaid and house-bound patients in Massachusetts, Ohio and Texas were also affected.

Federal investigators said that none of the nurses caught up in the scheme had been found to have caused harm to patients, but Chad Yarbrough, a special agent with the FBI in Miami, said it was "disturbing" that 7,600 people could be in "critical healthcare roles" without being properly qualified.

Since the scandal broke, David said he has lost two nursing jobs; Angela has lost one, and is now worried about getting a second. She said the loss of income "impacted us really bad" and that "a lot of anxiety has been built up."

"I've never been involved in anything even close to this," David said. "It's embarrassing to tell your family, your friends, your co-workers."

He explained that he had been working at a Veterans Affairs hospital in New York and had also done house calls for patients.

"All my patients loved me," he remarked.

When David was told by his employer that he was having to be let go, "[the employer] was in disbelief."

"I didn't know what to tell my family because [of] how embarrassed I was about what's going on," Angela added.

As well as a greater potential for legal liability, employing nurses without recognized qualifications also poses questions of safety for patients, the authorities have said.

In a statement in January, Markenzy Lapointe, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said: "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."

But both David and Angela are convinced that they participated in genuine lessons taught by professors and skills labs that prepared them for practical scenarios nurses are likely to encounter in their work—and so completed all the training a qualified nurse would have, even if the piece of paper saying they did is now effectively worthless.

"We did the work," Angela said. "I sat there for my NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination, which determines if it's safe for a nurse to begin practicing) and cried and cried and studied and studied. No one could take that NCLEX for me. It seems like all our hard work was in vain."

"We still had to study because we had exams," David said. "You miss out on personal events, family events, birthdays, Christmas. We had the same sacrifices that anyone else did—and more."

As well as traveling to Florida, the two also paid for their own transport and accommodation while there.

Jones noted one case in which a nursing student found their qualification deemed fraudulent, despite completing all their training at another school that, had she stayed at, would have otherwise qualified her as a nurse.

"One of my clients, the school that she attended prior to attending one of these affected institutions wasn't accredited," he explained. "So she got pretty much all of the credit she needed to graduate, but decided to transfer those credits to another school that was accredited, just so that she'd have more job opportunities.

"But she was not trying to participate in any scheme to fraudulently obtain a diploma," Jones added. "She just wanted to get a diploma from an accredited school, and that's kind of how she found herself in this situation—unlike other people who might have just flat-out not attended any school whatsoever, and simply sought to buy a diploma from one of the affected institutions here."

While Jones builds a case for his clients, they are left facing up to the reality of their careers being ruined.

"Everyday it's a roller coaster, and your livelihood is being threatened," David said. "You don't want to do anything because you don't know when it's your last paycheck."


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