Lawmakers introduce bill criminalizing violence, threats against hospital employees

U.S. House representatives introduced a bill this week to establish legal penalties for assaulting or intimidating hospital employees similar to protections already on the books for aircraft crews.

The bipartisan Safety from Violence for Healthcare Employees (SAVE) Act was unveiled by Reps. Madeleine Dean, D-Pennsylvania, and Larry Bucshon, M.D., R-Indiana.

The lawmakers said enhanced penalties included within the bill are intended to deter an uptick in violence and threats seen across the country.

“Unfortunately, over the past few years, there have been increased incidences of violence taking place at our hospitals,” Bucshon said in a statement. “These rising levels of violence negatively impact the ability of our nation’s physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals—who are currently experiencing record levels of stress and burnout—to provide quality care for their patients.

“The SAVE Act will put in place legal protections to help deter violence inside our nation’s hospitals and keep these vital institutions safe and secure for patients and our nation’s healthcare professionals,” he said.

The new bill is endorsed by two national healthcare professional organizations, the American Hospital Association and the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) as well as others from the lawmakers’ home states of Pennsylvania and Indiana.

The representatives’ announcement notes that the bill includes protections for “individuals who may be mentally incapacitated due to illness or substance use,” often a sticking point for organizations that would otherwise support the increased penalties.

“Just the other day, our worst nightmare was realized once again when two physicians, an employee and a patient were killed in a medical office,” ACEP President Gillian Schmitz, M.D., said in reference to the June 1 attack at Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by a former patient carrying a rifle and a handgun.

“Physical and verbal attacks are not tolerated in any other workplace—they should not be allowed in a health care setting. Emergency physicians deeply appreciate Rep. Dean and Rep. Bucshon’s bipartisan leadership and others in Congress who are leading important efforts to protect the professionals on the front lines so that they can focus on patient care without worrying about their personal safety,” Schmitz said.

There are no federal laws in place specifically protecting hospital employees from assault or intimidation, although legislation was introduced roughly a month ago by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, that would instruct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require healthcare and social service workplaces to adopt violence prevention measures.

Baldwin’s bill was backed by a handful of labor groups and organizations representing healthcare professionals—ACEP, National Nurses United, the American Nurses Association and the Emergency Nurses Association, to name a few—but not by trade organizations representing hospitals or provider organizations.

Laws criminalizing violence or threats against healthcare workers have had traction at the state level, with governors from Wisconsin and Utah signing the protections into law earlier this year. Similar bills are being considered in several other states including Kansas, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Michigan.