Would-Be Caregivers, Beware
By PHILIP SHISHKIN
May 7, 2008; Page D1
Tammy Barnes, an unemployed mother of three, used up her $12,000 in savings last year pursuing a career in nursing. But after completing a course offered by Advanced Medical Training Institute, in Marietta, Ga., Ms. Barnes can't get a nursing license or a job, because Advanced isn't accredited by Georgia's nursing board.
Ms. Barnes, who lives in Hiram, Ga., and two other Advanced students have sued the school and its owners, claiming they were duped into believing the school was properly certified. The owners have been battling regulators in West Virginia over similar issues, and in February, they were ordered by the Texas Workforce Commission to stop operating an uncertified school in Dallas.
One owner, Joseph Tucker, declined to comment, and the other, Edlyne Charles, didn't return calls. In depositions and hearings, Ms. Charles and Mr. Tucker have denied wrongdoing and have said that Advanced is a legitimate business.
The actions against them represent the potential risks would-be nurses face amid a proliferation of schools looking to capitalize on the fast-expanding nursing field. As job openings for nurses have grown, established nursing schools haven't been able to keep up with the demand. According to a recent study, U.S. colleges turned away about 40,000 qualified applicants for nursing programs in 2006.
For-profit schools have rushed into the market -- and a number of them are drawing scrutiny and litigation. Texas regulators issued cease-and-desist orders against a total of six unlicensed schools this year. Last year, California regulators issued two similar orders against uncertified schools and say they are investigating three more. In September, the Massachusetts attorney general filed a lawsuit against an outfit that allegedly collected thousands of tuition dollars by claiming a nonexistent link to a bona fide college. Nancy Spector, education director at the National Council of the State Boards of Nursing, says that over the past few years, she has heard about one new suspect program a month, up from zero in 2002, when she joined the council.
Some unscrupulous operators have relied on loopholes in the regulatory system. There is no law that prohibits schools from offering courses that purport to teach nursing skills. But state nursing boards will issue permits to practice as a registered nurse or a licensed practical nurse only to those students who train in certified programs and pass a state nursing exam.
In Georgia, Advanced Medical had 96 students in the class that graduated in June 2007. Many are of modest means. Maxine Rogers, a single mother of two in Decatur, Ga., who took classes until late 2007, took out an $8,000 personal loan to complete the Advanced course before she discovered it was a dead end, she says. She is now struggling to keep up with $222 monthly loan payments. "I had to double my shifts," says Ms. Rogers, who works as a nursing assistant.
Chichi Sabor, a licensed practical nurse in Haltom City, Texas, enrolled in Merit Excellence Institute in nearby Carrollton to upgrade to a registered-nurse degree. After she made a down payment of $2,500, a Merit official raised her suspicions by suggesting she teach a course, she says. She declined the offer and ultimately went to the state's regulators -- who issued an order against the school after it went out of business. Ms. Sabor says she lost her $2,500. Merit's owners couldn't be reached to comment. The school, which charged $7,500 to $10,000 in tuition, had at least 55 students in its last session.
Advanced Medical's owners managed to recruit students, obtain hospital cooperation for training, and build a network reaching as far as Texas and Jamaica. Its president, Ms. Charles, is a licensed practical nurse who once falsely identified herself as a registered nurse in a brochure for another venture, according to a consent decree she signed with Georgia nursing regulators in 2002. Mr. Tucker, who was vice president, told a recent closed-door hearing at the Texas Workforce Commission -- where the school was to trying to expand -- that he hardly knows "how to put on a Band-Aid." Mr. Tucker claimed to be worth "a million and a half dollars" in the hearing. "I don't need to do this," he added. "I do this because I like to work and I like helping people."
Advanced Medical classes in Georgia were held twice a week from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Ms. Barnes said lectures became progressively more cursory, with instructors rushing through coursework. When she started training at Kindred Hospital Atlanta, "I was very, very nervous, I was so sick about what I might do to patients," she says. Still, she says, she was permitted to give them drugs.
Brian Pugh, the hospital's chief executive, confirms Advanced Medical students trained at Kindred, but says they weren't allowed to administer medication. He says Kindred revoked its agreement with Advanced in September after being notified by Georgia authorities that the school wasn't certified.
Although Ms. Barnes intended to practice in Georgia, she said she applied for a license in West Virginia at Ms. Charles's suggestion. She said she was told by Ms. Charles that she would be able to obtain a license in Georgia through state reciprocity agreements. Ms. Charles denied this in a deposition.
Last fall, to Ms. Barnes's surprise, she received a letter from the West Virginia nursing board asking her for proof of having gone to school -- in Jamaica. A transcript sent to the board, Ms. Barnes later learned, showed her attending not Advanced Medical, but Hospicare Nursing Academy in Mandeville, a town in Jamaica she had never visited. The transcript also showed her studying for six months longer than she actually did. Advanced Medical has said it has a franchise agreement with Hospicare.
In October, Hospicare sent the West Virginia board a second set of transcripts for Ms. Barnes. The records were different this time, and Ms. Barnes was shown to have received A's in all 33 courses listed -- including courses she says she never took.
Hospicare is registered with Jamaica's Ministry of Education. The ministry official whose job is to monitor such schools, Yvonne Campbell, went to bat for Hospicare and Advanced Medical in the U.S., arranging a meeting with West Virginia's nursing-regulatory board to try to convince the state that the program was legitimate, says Lannette Anderson, the board's executive director.
Reached by phone in Jamaica, Ms. Campbell said, "I'm not at liberty to discuss the issue." In a brief interview, Hospicare principal Lovern Spencer said she'd "heard of Advanced," but added that "we don't do business in the U.S."
Ministry of Education spokeswoman Charlene Ashley said the ministry didn't know Ms. Campbell had been to West Virginia. On Feb. 14 the West Virginia board ruled that Hospicare/Advanced students will no longer be allowed to take the board exam and voided licenses already issued to the school's graduates.
Back in Marietta, Ms. Charles decided to liquidate Advanced Medical, she said in a recent deposition. She now runs a school called Mega Career Institute at the same number and the same address as its predecessor.