Workers in the Georgia secretary of state's office have fallen behind on licensing applications for nurses.
Workers in the Georgia secretary of state's office have fallen behind on licensing applications for nurses. Jim Burress/WABE
Hundreds of health care workers in Georgia are losing their licenses to practice because of a problem created by a new immigration law in the state.
The law requires everyone — no matter where they were born — to prove their citizenship or legal residency to renew their professional licenses.
With too few state workers to process the extra paperwork, licenses for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals are expiring.
Lisa Durden with the secretary of state's office says renewing a license used to be a straightforward process and most applications whizzed through. Now, they crawl.
Enactment of the law coincided with budget cuts that reduced the office staff by 40 percent.
Kelly Farr, Georgia's deputy secretary of state, says 600 nurses alone have fallen through the cracks. "There's nothing more frustrating than getting that call from the desperate nurse, knowing ... she's being slowed down because we literally don't have enough people to click the approve button," Farr said.
While the secretary of state handles licensing of nurses, pharmacists, and veterinarians, Georgia's medical board is in charge of doctors, physician assistants and even acupuncturists. It's the same story there.
Director LaSharn Hughes says she sent 41,000 letters of notification out on a recent Thursday. "And by Monday, we'd burned up a fax machine," Hughes said. "We didn't have the staff. We didn't have the equipment."
Phones go unanswered. Paperwork piles up. And processing delays, coupled with confusion over the new rules, mean lots of expired licenses.
Hughes estimates about 1,300 doctors and other medical practitioners have lost their legal ability to work. Some didn't submit the required paperwork. Others are stuck in the backlog of applications that haven't been processed yet.
Donald Palmisano Jr. executive director of the Medical Association of Georgia, says the law fixes a problem that never existed — at least not among doctors. "We're not aware of any undocumented immigrants that are physicians," Palmisano said.
Even D.A. King, an outspoken activist and critic of illegal immigration who helped write the law, agrees. King says the law protects Georgia jobs, but even he believes some parts of the legislation need fixing. A bill that addressed some of the law's shortcomings died in the last legislative session.
"I am not only outraged, but sincerely disappointed and puzzled that our repair legislation was not allowed a vote," King says.
Legislative sponsors of the law didn't respond to interview requests. Neither did Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
For now, state licensing offices will keep plowing through the mail containing copies of passports and birth certificates, then checking them against a list of acceptable documents.
But that's where the vetting ends, confirms Kelly Farr and Lisa Durden of the secretary of state's office. The law says nothing about making sure the documents are genuine. "We really don't have a way to do that," says Durden.
State officials say the new document requirements haven't uncovered any undocumented immigrants.
Instead, officials say they hope the process itself may discourage people in the country illegally from trying to get licenses in the first place.
This story is part of a partnership with NPR, WABE, and Kaiser Health News.