HARRISBURG – The state’s licensing boards rolled out guides this week to help applicants understand how long it may take the state to approve applications for professional licenses.
The move comes as Pennsylvania Department of State grapples with the challenge of reducing the application processing time, which took 88 days for initial nursing license applications took in 2018. The Department of State’s Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs oversees 29 licensing boards and commissions, though the nursing board is the largest.
Acting Secretary of State Kathryn Boockvar said in 2019, new nursing license applications are now being processed, on average, in 64 days.
Boockvar was appointed in January as acting Secretary of State.
The time for processing applications spiked as the state moved to a new online platform for managing the license applications, Boockvar said.
“There is no question there have been challenges with the transition,” she said. Those challenges may have been amplified by customer-service problems as agency staff struggled to handle the flood of phone calls from license applicants.
Fielding the phone calls was only part of the problem, she said. Too many callers were unable to get a staff person on the phone at all.
The licensing boards had no voice mail system to accept messages after-hours and, until June, the Department of State website listed a phone number that didn’t go to any phone.
Callers to that phone line would hear a greeting, then get placed on hold until they hung up, said Kalonji Johnson, acting commissioner of the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs in the Department of State.
There were 411 phone calls to that phantom phone line in 2019 before agency officials realized it existed and removed references to the number on the web site, said Wanda Murren, a Department of State spokeswoman.
“It’s too many,” Boockvar said.
Betsy Snook CEO of the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, said customer service has been an ongoing problem for nurses trying to get information from the state Nursing Board.
“When we are contacted by nurses, their number one frustration is their inability to speak to someone about their concerns or receive follow up from the State Board,” she said. “Customer service is an area that the State Board could investigate and improve on moving forward.”
There are indications that things have been getting better though, said Pennsylvania Coalition of Nurse Practitioners president Adele Caruso.
“Significantly fewer of our members requested our support with this issue in recent months compared to a year ago,” she said.
Snook said that the bulk of the complaints about delays have been from new nurses.
“We always encourage nurses to begin the process early,” she said. “We believe the Board is reviewing their current processes and looking to make it more efficient and effective.”
The Department of State on Tuesday released the application process guides for the Nursing Board, as well as the boards overseeing cosmetology and osteopathic medicine.
Boockvar said state officials hope the guides will help people understand, not only how long the total application approval process takes, but also how long each stage of the process takes.
Each guide breaks down the licensing process into three phases, gives the average timeline for each phase and provides tips to avoid delays, she said.
Johnson said that in addition to working to reduce the time it takes to approve applications, the agency has also been updating its systems to help managers recognize and respond when staff members are dealing with difficult phone calls.
Previously, the agency’s phone system would record calls, but managers couldn’t listen to the call in real-time. Now, managers can hear the interaction between the employee and the caller. And managers can speak to the employee during the phone call without the caller hearing what the supervisor is saying, he said.