As coronavirus cases are surging, so are reports of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. But even as mental health professionals are needed more than ever, those who graduated from one Fresno State nursing program are being told to return to school.
The Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner certificate program allows nurse practitioners to provide psychiatric care. But because of an administrative error, the Fresno State program was never accredited, and all 60 former graduates were told in early 2019 by a credentialing agency that their certifications were in jeopardy and that they’d need to repeat their training. “I was completely shocked,” says psychiatric nurse practitioner Joyce Weckl, who graduated from the Fresno State program in 2011. “I had been practicing all of these years, and all of a sudden to get this letter…it just seemed so bizarre.”
Weckl runs a private psychiatric practice in Ventura County, where she estimates that repeating the one-year, virtual program would mean offloading around a quarter of her 700 patients. Multiplied by 60 graduates, the error means thousands to tens of thousands of patients could lose access to mental health care—during a pandemic, no less. “Every psychiatrist I know...is just booked to the hilt, and we need more providers right now and not fewer,” says Weckl. “Our time would be much better spent caring for people, and not repeating classes and clinical hours that we’ve already done.”
Prior to 2014, nursing certificate programs did not require accreditation to operate. Those requirements changed in 2014, but oversight from both the school and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), which accredits nursing programs like this, allowed the program to keep operating. Once the program’s lack of accreditation became known, the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), which certifies nurses, revoked the certification of all those who had completed it—even those, like Weckl, who had graduated before accreditation was required.
Earlier this month, Fresno State announced the certificate program had finally been accredited, as had the university’s Master of Science in Nursing program that had lost its accreditation in 2019. “I am thrilled at the news, as now more than ever it is strikingly clear how vital our nursing students are to the future well-being of our community,” said Fresno State Provost Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval in a press release.
The university worked with the ANCC to provide a five-year grace period for its psychiatric nurse practitioner graduates to repeat their training, and arranged for them to do it for free at California State University, San Marcos. The first cohort of returning psychiatric nurse practitioners began the program in January. "Fresno State continues to try and negotiate with ANCC for different outcomes," wrote School of Nursing Chair Sylvia Miller in an email, "but we have had no response from ANCC."
Weckl, who is due to repeat the program in the fall, is holding out hope that the ANCC will reconsider its requirements before she needs to begin letting go of patients. On June 20, she and 15 other psychiatric nurse practitioners wrote a letter to the ANCC, asking that the agency grandfather them back into certification. “I understand that you have shifted the blame to Fresno. I disagree. It is obvious that CCNE and ANCC are both culpable in this debacle,” the letter states. “Instead of owning this, they are forcing the students to jump through hoops and jeopardizing patient lives and access to care just to cover your own mistakes. Where is the common sense in all of this?”
The ANCC has not responded to the letter beyond acknowledging it was received, and did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
This story was updated to include comment from the Fresno State School of Nursing.