Two West Texas nurses have been indicted after filing an anonymous complaint about a doctor's practices with the Texas Medical Board, but the state agency says the women did nothing wrong.
The nurses are charged with misuse of official information. Each one-page indictment filed against them alleges they improperly accessed information that was not public "with intent to harm" the doctor for "a nongovernmental purpose."
Among the nurses' complaints were that the doctor improperly encouraged patients to buy herbal medicines from him and had wanted to use hospital supplies to perform a procedure at a patient's home.
The Texas Medical Board defended the nurses' actions Friday and said it's the board's state-mandated duty to look into such complaints.
"I don't know that I've ever seen a criminal prosecution like this," said Mari Robinson, executive director of the Texas Medical Board. "I don't know that I've ever seen a criminal prosecution for providing information to the medical board. Ever."
The American Nurses Association and its Texas affiliate said they are concerned about a "chilling effect" on other nurses.
"It's outrageous to file criminal felony charges against these nurses based on allegations that they raised concerns over a physician's action," the national group's president, Rebecca Patton, said in a statement. "Nurses have a duty to advocate for the health and safety of their patients, and that is what these nurses were doing."
The nurses, Anne Mitchell and Vicki Galle, filed their complaint letter April 7. In it, they said Dr. Rolando Arafiles encouraged patients he saw at the Winkler County Memorial Hospital emergency room and the county's rural health clinic to buy the herbal medicines. The letter also said that the hospital's chief of staff stopped him from taking supplies to perform a procedure at a patient's home, instead of at the hospital.
Arafiles declined to comment on those allegations Friday.
"That case is between Ms. Mitchell and the state, and I'm out of it," he said. "I'm a victim of what's going on. I don't want to make any other comments."
Brian Carney, the nurses' attorney, released the letter to The Associated Press and called their indictments "absolutely the worst set of circumstances for any nurse trying to do their job and protect their patients."
The nurses each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Law enforcement stepped into the case when Arafiles — having been notified by the board that he was under investigation for mistreatment and poor quality of care — filed a harassment complaint with the Winkler County Sheriff's Department. The sheriff's office figured out who had filed the complaint, and the local prosecutor filed charges last month.
The indictments do not provide additional details. Winkler County District Attorney Mike Fostel was out of town and unavailable for comment Friday. Through his receptionist, Winkler County Attorney Scott Tidwell declined to comment.
Robinson has sent a letter to Fostel and Tidwell defending the nurses' actions.
"The willingness of persons to come forward and file complaints with the Board is critical to the Board's success in regulating the practice of medicine as required by Texas law," she wrote.
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