Health groups back Senate bill to curb attacks in hospitals

Nurses say they are being assaulted by patients or family members with increasing frequency. A Senate bill would require health systems to enact workforce violence prevention plans.

In the wake of attacks on healthcare professionals in recent years, health advocacy groups are backing legislation aimed at reducing violence in hospitals.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., has introduced legislation directing the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require healthcare and social service organizations to create workplace violence prevention plans. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., last year.

Healthcare workers accounted for nearly 3 out of 4 injuries (73%) sustained in workplace violence, according to a 2018 U.S. Labor Department study.

Although precise data isn’t available, healthcare and nursing leaders say they have seen a great deal of violent incidents involving patients and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Healthcare workers need more protection, Baldwin said.

“They have faced unprecedented obstacles to just stay healthy and do their jobs. And on top of it all, they have seen a spike in senseless violence against them,” Baldwin said in a press event last week. “Unfortunately, the violence against our healthcare workers was a pervasive issue even before the pandemic.”

Baldwin has lined up more than two dozen senators as cosponsors, including U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“It’s time to protect our healthcare workers and their patients from violence and pass this overdue legislation," Baldwin said.

In one incident that gained widespread attention earlier this year, a nurse was attacked in a Louisiana hospital, and the suspect was later arrested. After the assault, Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health, said attacks of healthcare workers should be treated as felonies.

“Workplace violence against healthcare workers has been escalating throughout the pandemic and has reached a point that legislation needs to be considered to make this violence a felony,” he said in a statement in January.

'Large increase in violence'

Groups including the National Nurses United, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the American Nurses Association, the AFL-CIO and the Emergency Nurses Association have backed the bill. Other large unions, including the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), are supporting the legislation.

Nurses have said they have been assaulted with disturbing regularity.

About half (48%) of nurses said workplace violence is rising, according to an April survey by National Nurses United. Less than a third of nurses (30.6%) said violence at work was increasing in September 2021.

“So many nurses across the country are physically and verbally attacked each year and the violence is just getting worse,” Jean Ross, president of National Nurses United, said at the news conference.

“Nurses report being punched, kicked, bitten, beaten, and threatened with violence as they provide care to others—and some have even been stabbed or shot.”

Healthcare leaders across the country have said they’re struggling with a shortage of nurses. Ross and others said some are leaving hospital staff jobs because they don’t feel supported, and some are citing safety as a factor in their decision.

In a recent interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Vicki Good, executive director of nursing at Mercy Springfield, said assaults of nurses and other healthcare workers are happening too often.

“We have definitely seen, despite using de-escalation techniques to the nth degree, we have seen a large increase in violence toward our healthcare workers,” Good said.

Bill has strong support

Nurses and healthcare workers in emergency medicine see violent incidents with regularity, Meg Dionne, a registered nurse who works in an emergency department in Portland, Maine, said at the news conference supporting the bill.

“I know many nurses who have quit because of the violence they have seen in the ER,” she said.

Nurses don’t want to “criminalize” patients, but Dionne said healthcare workers need plans in place to reduce violent incidents.

We cannot always prevent violent outbursts, but if we have appropriate staffing levels and prevention plans in place, we can recognize the signs of escalation and keep the environment safe for everyone involved, patients, nurses, staff, family, and everyone,” Dionne said.

Gillian Schmitz, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said the legislation is important to protect workers and patients.

“The pandemic continues to show everyone how vital emergency care can be, but it has only exacerbated many of the factors that contribute to violence in the emergency department,” Schmitz said in a statement earlier this month.

“The health care professionals in our nation’s emergency departments are fully dedicated to caring for patients and saving lives. Now Congress has a critical opportunity to pass legislation to protect each of them from violent attacks on the job.”

Lawmakers and advocates have been pushing the bill for a while.

Courtney, who is married to a nurse practitioner, noted he first introduced the bill in 2019 and then reintroduced it in the current House session.

The bill gained more support the second time around, he said. While largely backed up Democrats, 38 House Republicans voted in favor of it last year, enabling the bill to pass by a comfortable margin.

“This bill has real legs and real strong, grass-roots support,” Courtney said.