MIAMI (AP) - Federal authorities in Florida have charged 25 people with participating in a wire fraud scheme that created an illegal shortcut for aspiring nurses to get licensed and find employment.
Recently unsealed federal grand jury indictments allege the defendants took part in a scam that sold more than 7,600 fraudulent nursing degree diplomas from three Florida-based nursing schools, federal officials said during a news conference in Miami on Wednesday afternoon. Prosecutors said the scheme also involved transcripts from the nursing schools for people seeking licenses and jobs as registered nurses and licensed practical/vocational nurses. The defendants each face up to 20 years in prison.
"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," said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe.
Lapointe added that "a fraud scheme like this erodes public trust in our health care system."
The fake diplomas and transcripts qualified those who purchased them to sit for the national nursing board exam. If they passed, they were able to obtain licenses and jobs in various states, prosecutors said.
The schools involved - Siena College, Palm Beach School of Nursing and Sacred Heart International Institute - are now closed.
Some of those who purchased degrees were from South Florida's Haitian-American community, including some with legitimate LPN licenses who wanted to become registered nurses, the Miami Herald reported.
"Health care fraud is nothing new to South Florida, as many scammers see this as a way to earn easy, though illegal, money," acting Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough said Wednesday.
He said it's particularly disturbing that more than 7,600 people around the country obtained fake credentials and were potentially in critical health care roles treating patients.
The selling and purchasing of nursing diplomas and transcripts to "willing but unqualified individuals" is a crime that "potentially endangers the health and safety of patients and insults the honorable profession of nursing," said Special Agent in Charge Omar Pérez Aybar. Pérez said investigators have not found, however, that any of the nurses caused harm to patients.
The students paid a total of $114 million for the fake degrees between 2016 and 2021, the newspaper reported. About 2,400 of the 7,600 students eventually passed their licensing exams - mainly in New York, federal officials said. Nurses certified in New York are allowed to practice in Florida and many other states.
Many of those people may lose their certification but likely won't be criminally charged, federal officials said.
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