Senators Joe Manchin, Marco Rubio introduce bill to make violence, threats against hospital workers a federal crime

Senate legislators have rolled out a bipartisan, industry-backed bill that would make assault or intimidation of hospital workers a federal crime.

The Safety from Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act was introduced Tuesday by Senators Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida. It’s a companion to similar legislation introduced in the House of Representatives last year and reintroduced in April.

“Our nation’s healthcare workers tirelessly care for the health and well-being of communities across the country, even in the face of increased violence, threats and intimidation,” Manchin said in a release. “This legislation would create a safer working environment for hospital staff, deter violent behavior and make sure that assailants are appropriately held accountable.”

Per the bill’s text, anyone who “knowingly assaults” an individual employed by a hospital or by an entity contracting with a hospital or other medical facility and “interferes with the performance of the duties” of the worker would be subject to fines and up to 10 years imprisonment.

Jail time would be increased to a maximum of 20 years should the attacker have used “a deadly or dangerous weapon,” inflicted “serious bodily injury” or have committed their attack during a public emergency declaration, according to the text.

The protections are similar to those already in place for aircraft and airport workers. However, reflecting concerns often raised by advocacy groups, the bill includes protections should the attacker have a disability or be mentally incapacitated due to illness or substance use.

The bill also instructs the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study measuring how the SAVE Act’s added penalties impact the frequency of workplace violence.

“The SAVE Act would provide much-needed protections for our healthcare workers,” Rubio said in a release. “It is unacceptable that these dedicated professionals have to put their lives at risk just to do their jobs. The SAVE Act would protect healthcare workers from violence by creating new criminal penalties for acts of intentional assault. I am proud to join Senator Manchin in leading this important bipartisan legislation and I urge my colleagues to support."

Dozens of states have enacted similar criminal penalties for violence or threats against healthcare workers, though to date there is no such law in place at the federal level.

The SAVE Act landed alongside support from a slew of hospital and clinician industry groups.

In statements included alongside the senators’ announcement, American Hospital Association (AHA) President and CEO Rick Pollack noted that hospitals increasingly have been adopting new technologies, training programs and facility redesigns to protect healthcare workers.

“But hospitals cannot do it all alone,” Pollack said. “The sharp rise in violence against caregivers is clearly documented, yet no federal law exists to protect them. Enactment of this bipartisan legislation would be a significant step forward in protecting our workforce. The AHA commends Senators Manchin and Rubio for their leadership on this issue.”

Christopher S. Kang, M.D., president of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), added that the escalating violence has contributed to clinician burnout and threatens to exacerbate an already dire workforce shortage.

“ACEP deeply appreciates Senator Rubio and Senator Manchin for their bipartisan leadership on the SAVE Act to help ensure that federal law is further equipped to protect healthcare workers from violence, threats and intimidation, while better safeguarding our patients with psychiatric and substance use disorder emergencies,” Kang said in the release.

The heads of America’s Essential Hospitals and the Emergency Nurses Association also voiced support for the bill on behalf of their membership.

Workplace violence in healthcare facilities is five to six times higher than in any other private workplace, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Incidence rates nearly doubled between 2011 and 2018 with healthcare workers accounting for 73% of all nonfatal workplace injuries due to violence in 2018.

Healthcare groups say the issue has only increased over the course of the pandemic. For instance, 85% of over 2,700 emergency physicians polled by ACEP last year said they believed the rate of violence had increased over the past five years, compared to 69% who indicated similarly during a 2018 survey. Forty-five percent of those responding to this year’s polls said they believed emergency room violence had greatly increased versus 2018’s 25%.