Florida, land of scams, strikes again. This time, it’s fake nursing degrees | Opinion

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

When it comes to healthcare fraud in Florida, you’ve got to work awfully hard to stand out.

We’ve long been a hotbed of Medicare fraud. We elected governor — and then U.S. senator — Rick Scott, despite knowing that his hospital company had been slapped with a record-setting $1.7 billion fine for fraudulent billing and practices and that he’d been forced out. We spent years playing a starring — and shameful — role in the “pill mill” scandal, as Florida’s pain clinics became the scourge of the nation for pumping out opioids to addicts, helping fuel a crisis that remains with us today.

Ground Zero

We keep making national headlines for this stuff. Just this month, a Palm Beach County doctor who served as medical director for more than 50 sober homes, treatment centers and testing labs got a 20-year sentence in the Justice Department’s largest addiction fraud case ever.

And now Florida nursing schools are in the glare of the spotlight. According to the feds, a network of nursing-school operators, based in South Florida, has been selling fake degrees, allowing unqualified people to become certified as nurses. They could bypass a nearly two-year nursing program requiring clinical work, national exams and certification and simply pay up between $10,000 and $17,000 for a falsified transcript.

Prosecutors said this was a scheme designed to capitalize on the nursing shortage that has been worsened by COVID, a particularly heartless calculation — even under the low standards of empathy-challenged Florida.

There were recruiters and coaches to help students pass the tests. Armed with bogus diplomas, the students took tests to be certified in Florida, New York, New Jersey and Texas. About a third of the estimated 7,600 students who took the tests passed, with the majority of them in New York.

We’d apologize to New York — except a certification there also allows the students to work in Florida.

At least 20 arrests

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Markenzy Lapointe, who has been in office for less than a month, announced Wednesday that more than 20 people have been arrested. The joint investigation by the DOJ, the FBI and the inspector general’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services was called “Operation Nightingale” — a reference to Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.

That’s because this scheme, if true, isn’t just criminal. It’s also a violation of the trust we put in the nursing profession. Patients, including children and the elderly, could have been harmed. Nurses perform some of the most important tasks in any medical setting. The damage to the nursing profession in a situation like this is severe.

As Lapointe said, when it comes to nurses’ credentials, “Shortcut is not a word we want to use.”

Not even in Florida.