State oversight easy for felons to foil
Seattle Times staff reporters
After he was convicted of sexually assaulting an Oregon hospital patient, the 34-year-old Portland man's career as a nursing assistant should have been over.
But Sugath Hiripitiyage fled the state to Washington. Once here, he applied for a new nursing-assistant license, lying about not having a felony. Three weeks later, he had a new nursing license, courtesy of the Washington Department of Health.
The reason for his disturbing good fortune:
Washington regulators search only for in-state convictions when screening applicants for health-care licenses. They say national checks are too expensive and slow.
So felons with out-of-state convictions, such as Hiripitiyage, can get approved to be nurses, counselors, dentists, doctors or any of the 57 health-care professions that Washington licenses.
"I don't understand how Washington could have given him a license — he was a fugitive sex offender," said James Fun, prosecutor in Hiripitiyage's criminal case in Oregon. "This is terribly disturbing."
Oregon and 13 other states conduct national screens. The FBI's national background check typically costs $30 and takes a few weeks. Oregon adds the cost to the license fee.
In contrast, much of Washington's health-care licensing system relies on blind faith. It granted Hiripitiyage a license without meeting him in person, talking to him on the phone, performing a comprehensive criminal-background check or, since he used a post-office box, even knowing where he lived.
Another sign of the system's blind faith: The Health Department screens health-care practitioners for convictions only once, when they first apply for licenses, not when they renew them.
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The department pays about $1.50 to the Washington State Patrol to check each applicant's name against its criminal-history database. But after that, practitioners are on an honor system. They must self-report convictions to the Health Department.
No surprise — they fail to do so. The Times found hundreds of felons with active licenses, including 55 with rap sheets for sex crimes, including child molestation. Most of them failed to notify the Health Department of their convictions.
When The Times brought these cases to the attention of Department of Health Secretary Mary Selecky, she said she was unaware of the scope of the problem.
"The information you are providing me is very disconcerting," she said.
Starting with the newspaper's findings, investigators in her agency recently have opened investigations into 25 of the most serious cases. So far, the Health Department has suspended or revoked the licenses of a counselor and two registered nurses, all convicted of crimes against children.
"I think we've revoked more licenses in the last month than in the last few years," department spokesman Tim Church said.
Sex felon on the lam kept license for a year.
Health Department officials in Olympia found out Hiripitiyage was a fugitive sex felon only when Oregon authorities alerted them by fax in February 2005, saying he was armed and dangerous and believed to be working as a nursing assistant in Washington.
He kept that nursing-assistant license for nearly a year. During that time, regulators dealt with the wanted felon through e-mails and telephone calls, trying to get him to voluntarily give up his license. The state's disciplinary system primarily tries to settle disciplinary cases — even with fugitives — rather than seek emergency suspensions, which might spark costly legal fights.
Health Department officials knew, from a Hillsboro, Ore., police report, that Hiripitiyage had stalked the Oregon hospital patient, a 28-year-old woman he had cared for at St. Joseph Medical Center near Portland.
He had become obsessed with the woman, sending her love notes and flowers. She was terrified of him and Hiripitiyage's supervisors banned him from her wing of the hospital. After reading the police reports, the Washington Health Department chief health investigator, Dave Magby, was outraged. He ordered immediate action — the "highest PRIORITY" — in a February 2005 memo.
But the investigation took months, then stalled.
Health Department lawyers were reluctant to suspend his license, citing their interpretation of state law. To suspend a license, health officials must establish that Washington patients are at risk of being harmed. But Hiripitiyage claimed he was no longer in the United States, so Washington patients were not at risk.
State regulators relied on an unsigned, typewritten one-paragraph letter, postmarked from Sri Lanka, his native country, that had Hiripitiyage's name and read, in part:
"I think I have not done anything wrong but I do not have my mental status explain you about this I do not have any hope for anything."
When health officials wrote back, their letter was returned — no such address existed.
Even so, staff attorney Lisa Pannone wrote in July 2005 that Hiripitiyage, a sex felon who had already lied to get a license, posed "no risk to patients in the State of Washington at this time. Not a high priority."
But The Times, using the e-mail address Hiripitiyage had used to correspond with state officials, tracked him to a Seattle-area telephone number and a Kirkland address. The nursing assistant had left his name and phone number on an Internet message board asking about the whereabouts of a former classmate. When reached at the Kirkland address, a man who identified himself as Hiripitiyage's cousin said the nursing assistant lived there occasionally. He also confirmed dates when Hiripitiyage had worked at Seattle hospitals — a period when the state believed the fugitive to be overseas.
The next day, the message about the classmate was removed from the Internet message board.
Earlier this year, The Times questioned health officials about why, after nearly a year, they hadn't suspended the fugitive's nursing license. Two days later, the state revoked his license.
"We should have taken his license away sooner," Health Department spokesman Church said. "We definitely learned from it."
State relies in part on the honor system.
Washington is not the only state that fails to comprehensively screen health-care professionals, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards, based in Dallas. Only 14 states mandate national searches, according to the federation's 2005 survey. At least 11 states, including Alaska, don't require background checks at all.
In Washington, about 1,600 convicted felons apply for state health-care licenses each year, about 4 percent of applicants. Of those, about 680 people failed to disclose in-state convictions on their application. The Health Department, which has required criminal-background checks since 1999, denies licenses to most of those during the application process.
Once licensed, Washington health-care practitioners are not screened again, even when they renew their licenses.
Take the case of registered nurse Matthew Yoo of Seattle. Licensed in 1994, he founded ADx Medical Staffing, a Tukwila-based temporary nurse staffing agency whose corporate clients include prominent Seattle hospitals.
In August 2000, Yoo, 36, was convicted of having sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old baby-sitter.
Prosecutors charged that Yoo showed pornographic videotapes to the teenager who was coerced into numerous sexual acts.
"Yoo said he knew it was wrong but he couldn't help himself," according to documents filed in King County Superior Court.
Yoo did not follow the Health Department's honor system and report his crime, as required.
When questioned earlier this year, he told a reporter he no longer held a nursing license. "I knew that I didn't deserve to be a nurse anymore and I voluntary gave it up," he said.
In fact, he still had an active license. Last month, after The Times asked about Yoo, the Health Department revoked his license.
Yoo's case reveals another unsettling system flaw: In Washington, criminal-justice authorities are not required to report convictions of health-care professionals to state licensing regulators.
In the Yoo case, prosecutors were concerned about his access to patients following the conviction, court records show. But prosecutors did not alert their counterparts in the state Health Department. The Times found 38 other instances in which criminal-justice authorities had not reported convictions of health-care practitioners to state regulators.
"Background checks are fundamental to patient safety," said Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, a chiropractor and vice chairman of the House Health Care Committee.
He proposed a bill that would have mandated national checks. State health officials recently changed their position and supported it. But the bill died in committee in March. "It just makes no sense that we're not doing it," Campbell said.
Selecky said discussion are under way with the Washington State Patrol to expand background checks nationally.
"I think it's something we should be doing," she said.
Michael J. Berens: 206-464-2288 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff researchers David Turim and Gene Balk contributed to this series.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company