The authorities are still in the process of tracking down some 2,800 individuals who purchased bogus nursing degrees from three unaccredited nursing schools in southern Florida and went on to pass the National Council Licensure Examination before ultimately landing jobs in the healthcare industry. The names of these individuals have been passed on to 56 nursing boards all over the country in hopes of finding those working with fraudulent credentials. Some 7,600 sham degrees were handed out as part of the criminal investigation known as Operation Nightingale and 25 people have been indicted so far.
Omar Perez Aybar, a Department of Health and Human Service agent, described those working in healthcare with unofficial degrees as “willing but unqualified individuals.” Now two of those individuals are speaking out about the legal and professional challenges they have faced. Some of the people with these degrees are even considering legal action to protect their credentials.
“It’s like you can’t even mention what school you went to now, just in fear of being blacklisted or outcast,” said one of the nurses with a fake degree, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Everyone thinks everyone that went to these schools paid for their degree, which is not true.”
The three unaccredited schools have been identified as Siena College of Health, Palm Beach School of Nursing, and the Sacred Heart International Institute of South Florida.
The Department of Justice claims these schools provided “false and fraudulent” diplomas and transcripts that nursing students could then purchase and that “the aspiring nurses never completed the necessary courses and clinicals” to be qualified.
But Jamaal R. Jones, a health lawyer in Miami, says he plans to dispute that claim on behalf of his clients. He confirmed that affidavits “written by the perpetrators of the scheme” had been given to him as part of the investigation. They came with two attachments. Attachment A listed the names of students “who they say earned their diploma and have valid transcripts.” Attachment B listed 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,” the attorney noted.
The first anonymous nurse with a bogus degree started out by attending nursing school in New York City before transferring to Palm Beach School of Nursing after one of his colleagues told him about the program. He and the other anonymous nurse would travel to Florida from New York once a month for a full week of studying before flying back to catch a 12-hour shift at the hospital.
“We would go to Palm Beach every month for an entire week to do school and the rest of [the] time [it] was online,” the first nurse said. “So yes, we did everything that they told us to do at that time in order to get a degree.”
The second anonymous nurse insists that they both have the proper training to work in the healthcare system. “We were in Florida, every month. Whatever curriculum they asked us to do, we did the curriculum,” she 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.”
Jones said his clients are looking to prove that their nursing degrees are valid, so they don’t have to start their training over.
“They’re really just focused on maintaining their license so they can continue to earn a living,” Jones remarked.
Reports show that many of those who obtained the phony degrees were migrants looking to become nurses. That was the case for the first anonymous nurse, who blamed the mistake on his 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,” Jones added.
“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.”
Dozens of providers have been flagged for having fake degrees, including several nurses at veterans’ medical centers in New York and Maryland, one person working at an assisted living facility in New Jersey, and a nurse at a hospital in Georgia. Several home care patients in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas have also been affected.
Since the news of the story broke, the first anonymous nurse said he has lost two jobs and the second nurse has lost one. And they are both worried about getting another.
“I’ve never been involved in anything even close to this,” said the first nurse. “It’s embarrassing to tell your family, your friends, your co-workers.”