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Committee passes legislation to license staffing agencies

The Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously Thursday for a proposed law that would require state licensing of medical staffing companies after a radiographer was accused of exposing hundreds of Marylanders to hepatitis C.

In a telephone call after the vote, Sen. Thomas Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, said that chances are high it will pass the full Senate as well, given the case of David Kwiatkowski, who allegedly stole syringes of drugs while working as a contract employee at four Maryland hospitals from 2008 to 2010.

Investigators believe he left syringes behind that were used on patients, exposing 1,700 Marylanders to the virus. Five contracted the disease.

In December, Kwiatkowski pleaded not guilty to federal charges that included tampering with a consumer product and obtaining controlled substances by fraud. His trial is scheduled for October in New Hampshire.

State health officials said the licensing of staffing companies is the first step in fixing systemwide holes that allowed Kwiatkowski's actions to go unchecked. Kwiatkowski is believed to have exposed thousands of others in several other states as well, as he moved from hospital to hospital despite being investigated for stealing drugs at other facilities.

The Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene released a report this week that detailed Kwiatkowski's time working in Maryland. The report found weaknesses in the way government regulators license contract workers and the way hospitals monitor drugs. It also said the lack of regulation of staffing agencies posed problems.

"The staffing agency issue jumped out as an unregulated and potentially dangerous situation and we think it played a role in this outbreak," Dr. Lucy Wilson, who as chief of the state health department's epidemiology center helped lead the investigation, told committee members.

The legislation would update current law that requires nursing and home health staffing agencies to get licensed by the Office of Health Care Quality. The proposed changes would require staffing agencies that place any health care worker to be licensed.

Thursday's vote included an emergency amendment that would put the law into effect this summer rather than in October.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, agreed to the amendment but said it might take longer to start inspections.

State health officials are also going to look at strengthening the licensing process of radiographers and other contract health workers. The state report also recommended expanding immunity laws to make health workers more comfortable with reporting suspicious co-workers and standardizing drug diversion programs at hospitals.

"The immediate need is to make sure there is a regulatory structure for [staffing companies] in the state," Sharfstein told committee members.

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