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A little over a month ago, Scripps Health made a plea to patients in San Diego: Be kind to healthcare workers. They’re exhausted, they’re burned out, and they increasingly have to deal with demeaning and verbally abusive comments from patients.
Now, several states are considering bills that would offer some form of protection for healthcare workers, whether it be from physical or verbal assault or other forms of abuse.
Oregon, for example, is mulling a House bill that would make it third-degree assault for someone to intentionally or recklessly injure a hospital worker while they’re performing official duties. If found guilty of such a crime, the punishment would entail a five-year prison term or $125,000, or both in some cases.
A House bill in Michigan, meanwhile, would incur a less harsh penalty for that kind of behavior – making it a misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of 93 days in jail or a $1,000 fine, for physical assault of a healthcare worker during their duties.
However, if someone assaults an emergency room worker and inflicts serious harm, the penalty would increase to a one-year maximum prison sentence and a $2,000 fine, or both. The penalty increases yet again if the assault occurs with a weapon: up to four years in prison and/or a $4,000 fine.
In Colorado, lawmakers are mulling going beyond just physical assault. The State Senate there recently passed a bill that would ban the “doxxing” of healthcare workers; doxxing reveals private information about someone via the internet, opening the door to potential harassment.
Colorado actually banned the doxxing of public health workers last year, but the new bill would expand that to all healthcare workers, as well as child representatives, code enforcement officers, and mortgage servicers and other contractors. The bill authorizes access to records maintained by a county recorder, county assessor, or county treasurer for certain individuals if such access is related to a real estate matter.
Other bills seek to minimize threats. Maryland, for instance, is considering a bill that would outlaw the threatening of a public health official with the intent to intimidate or impede their official duties; the penalty would be a misdemeanor and entail up to 90 days of jail time and/or a $500 fine. The Wisconsin Assembly recently passed similar legislation, though the threat would be considered a felony. And in New Jersey, pending legislation would deem such threats a “disorderly persons offense,” subject to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
THE LARGER TREND
Data compiled by the Cleveland Clinic in 2021 showed that while workplace violence can occur in any organization in any industry, it’s about four times more prevalent in healthcare than it is in other industries.
And a National Nurses United survey done in November 2020 shows that, of the 15,000 registered nurses nationwide who responded, 20% reported they were facing increased workplace violence.
The cost of covering violence-preventing security measures, whether in the form of hiring security staff, installing security infrastructure and providing training for staff, is a big expense, according to an American Hospital Association 2017 Cost of Community Violence to Hospitals and Health Systems report by Milliman.
Milliman analyzed the financial statements of 178 California hospitals and found that approximately 0.5% of total expenses were dedicated to security costs. This suggests that hospitals spent $4.7 billion on security in 2016 and that $847 million of this cost addresses violence.
The number of hospitals with workplace-violence-prevention programs increased between 2016 and 2018 – from 47.1% in 2016 to 53% in 2017 and 55.5% in 2018, according to another AHA report called the 2020 Environmental Scan.