Tennessee lawmakers are cracking down on nurses and other healthcare providers (HCPs) diverting medications for personal use. A law going into effect on July 1, 2017, (yes—next week) puts an obligation on employers of HCPs and substance abuse treatment programs to report failed drug tests under certain circumstances to the state so drug-diverting HCPs have their licenses suspended.

According to a Tennessee legislative hearing, there have been several instances of employers terminating nurses who diverted medications from patients to themselves. After their firings, the nurses’ licenses remained active with the state, so they went to work for other healthcare employers (who apparently were unaware of the nurses’ prior transgressions) and continued the diversion scheme.

The New Requirements

Under the new law (effective July 1, 2017), the state plans to take licenses away from HCPs sooner by requiring employers to report failed drug tests or refusals to submit to drug tests to the appropriate state licensing board. The new law expressly states that:

  • failing a pre-employment drug test,
  • failing a confirmation drug test, or
  • refusing to submit to a drug test

violates the practitioner’s practice act unless the HCP has a lawful prescription or a valid medical reason for using the drug. Violations of a practice act can result in an HCP, a nurse for example, to lose his or her license, as well as face other potential sanctions.

Pursuant to the new law, when an HCP refuses to submit to a drug test or tests positive, he or she has three business days to either (1) produce a lawful prescription or “valid medical reason” for using the drug, or (2) report to a substance abuse peer assistance or treatment program. If the HCP stays with the substance abuse program, then the employer does not have to report the violation to the state and the HCP’s license or certification is not suspended. If, however, the HCP fails to comply with the substance abuse program, the new law requires the employer and the substance abuse program to report the violation and the appropriate licensing board “shall suspend” the HCP’s license, certificate, or permit.

If the new law has its desired effect, it will help Tennessee employers from perhaps unwittingly hiring healthcare providers with substance abuse problems because their licenses will be suspended or revoked. As America deals with what has been called the opioid crisis, we will have to stay tuned to see whether this new law helps keep diverting healthcare practitioners off of employers’ payrolls.