Since the state's Board of Registered Nursing and nine other agencies started using the new software Oct. 8, applications for graduating nurses have spent weeks in limbo. (Los Angeles Times)

In December, Ben Villarreal graduated with a bachelor's degree from Samuel Merritt University's nursing program in Oakland. In short order, he received two job offers at UC hospitals with programs for new graduates.

But with less than a month to go before his start dates, the 22-year-old said he is concerned that he could lose both promising opportunities. As of mid-February, California's Board of Registered Nursing still hadn't given him the go-ahead to take the nursing exam needed to get his license and start a new job.

"I've been told my application is on my evaluator's desk with hundreds of others," he said. "My name could be at the bottom of the pile, or it could be at the top. There's no way to know when they'll get to it."

Problems with a new computer system are leaving thousands of recent nursing graduates like Villarreal in the lurch. California's new BreEZe online licensing and enforcement system, managed by the Department of Consumer Affairs in Sacramento, was intended to improve efficiency for 37 licensing boards and bureaus.

But since the state's Board of Registered Nursing and nine other agencies started using the software Oct. 8, applications for graduating nurses have spent weeks in limbo. Approximately 4,000 were pending as of Tuesday, according to Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs.

"Our BreEZe computer system is not doing everything it was designed to do yet," he said.

BreEZe, a $52-million system, cannot yet accept online applications for nursing licenses, so board workers have to type in applicant data from paper forms before they can determine eligibility to take the licensing exam.

"BreEZe is causing additional steps and additional workload," Heimerich said, adding that the pileup grew worse when large numbers of nurses graduated in December.

The nursing board is now advising graduates it may be as long as 90 days before they receive the go-ahead to take the licensing exam. Before the transition to BreEZe, its website warned applicants they might have to wait 6 to 8 weeks — but the process rarely took that long.

Audrey Berman, dean of nursing at Samuel Merritt University, which operates campuses in Oakland, Sacramento and San Mateo, said she had heard from at least a dozen distressed students, including Villarreal, out of about 250 who graduated from her program in November and December.

"They have done what they're supposed to do and they found a job, but they can't start without their license in hand," Berman said, adding that she wasn't sure how many other Samuel Merritt graduates were facing delays.

A nursing program administrator in Southern California told The Times that more than a third of the 40 people who graduated from her school in October had contacted her with worries about delayed licenses.

Heimerich said the Department of Consumer Affairs was trying to get the online application process working as soon as the contracts with its BreEZe vendor would allow. There is no target date for a fix yet.

In the meantime, Heimerich said, the department will move at least 15 additional staff members over to the nursing board to help the staff of 18 who process applications with manual tasks like data entry, which should help eliminate the backlog.

Heimerich said the nursing board was also working on a letter applicants will be able to share with employers, explaining that license delays aren't the job candidates' fault.

Hospitals have been giving new nurses extra time to get their licenses when they can, said state Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto).

Last week, she asked for an audit of the BreEZe implementation to figure out what went wrong.

"There are many other examples of persistent problems with tech system failures in state agencies," she said, mentioning the Covered California exchange and the Employment Development Department, where unemployment checks to as many as 300,000 people were delayed in September 2013 after a botched system upgrade.

"One would think we could save time and money by putting systems online," Olsen added. "These technology systems should be fully tested, and problems fixed, before rollout."

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee will consider Olsen's request at a March 4 hearing.

Villarreal said he didn't blame the nursing board for the delays.

"I'm not sure whose fault this really is," he said. "I just hope that they'll learn to do this more quickly for future classes."

eryn.brown@latimes.com