Healthcare groups back bill to protect hospital workers from assault

The bipartisan legislation was introduced about a week after four people were shot and killed in a Tulsa medical center. Advocates say it is long overdue.

Following a host of attacks against healthcare workers, including the deadly shooting on an Oklahoma hospital campus, lawmakers are pushing bipartisan federal legislation to offer greater protection for hospital employees.

U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Larry Bucshon, an Indiana Republican, have sponsored the Safety From Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act. Bucshon is a medical doctor. They announced they introduced the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives June 7.

The legislation would impose tougher penalties on those who attack and intimidate health system employees. The lawmakers note that there’s currently no federal law granting specific protections for healthcare workers. The bill is modeled after similar protections for airline and airport employees.

Four people, including two physicians, a health system employee and a patient, were shot and killed on the campus of the Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa, Oklahoma earlier this month. The shooting prompted calls for legislative measures to protect hospital workers, who have been subject to increasing attacks in recent years.

“Violence in hospitals has been growing with increasing frequency for years,” Dean said in a statement. “This legislation will take the important step to enhance the criminal penalty for someone who knowingly and intentionally enters a hospital and assaults an employee. These tireless heroes deserve protections to ensure they are not victimized while trying to save lives.”

Healthcare advocates have come out in support of the bill.

The American Hospital Association, which has endorsed the legislation, has been pushing for greater protections for healthcare workers. The AHA sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in March asking him to support enhanced protections for hospital workers similar to airline and airport workers.

Rick Pollack, president of the hospital association, noted that healthcare workers have been attacked more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The surge in assaults against the health care workforce cannot continue and we must do everything we can to protect them,” Pollack said in a news release.

“Our workforce is enduring historic levels of stress and violence as they continue to provide compassionate, quality care throughout the pandemic," he said. "Hospitals and health systems are committed to ensuring a safe work environment for our employees. We will not let up in ensuring that all hospital and health system workers feel safe in the vital work they perform.”

Healthcare workers have been far more likely to be attacked than workers in other industries, even before the pandemic. Healthcare workers were the victims of nearly three-quarters (73%) of all nonfatal workplace injuries in 2018, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many in the healthcare industry said violent attacks have spiked in the pandemic.

About half (48%) of hospital nurses reported an increase in workplace violence, according to a poll released in April by National Nurses United, a union representing nurses. The survey found a sharp increase from a poll in September, when 30.6% of nurses said workplace violence was rising.

Nurses have taken the brunt of the abuse in the pandemic. Nearly half (44%) of nurses said they have been physically attacked, and 68% indicated they had received verbal abuse during the pandemic, according to the AHA.

Brine Hamilton, president of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety, told Chief Healthcare Executive earlier this month that workplace violence has risen since the arrival of COVID-19.

“It seems to be a problem that has only gotten worse in the pandemic,” Hamilton said.

Gillian Schmitz, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said attacks on healthcare workers have become far too common. The group is supporting the bill.

“We continue to hear terrifying and disheartening stories from health care workers who have been assaulted on the job,” Schmitz said in a statement.

“Just the other day, our worst nightmare were realized once again when two physicians, an employee, and a patient were killed in a medical office. Physical and verbal attacks are not tolerated in any other workplace —they should not be allowed in a health care setting.”

Bucshon said the bill, if it becomes law, would help protect healthcare workers.

“As a practicing physician for more than 15 years, I know just how critical to patient care it is that we work to ensure that hospitals are safe environments,” Bucshon said in a statement. “Unfortunately, over the past few years, there have been increased incidences of violence taking place at our hospitals.”

The Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania and the Indiana Hospital Association have also come out in support of the bill.