Faced with a growing number of assaults against nurses and other medical providers by out-of-control patients, a proposal at the Legislature seeks to stiffen the penalties for such attacks.
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, wants to increase prison sentences and fines to equal those who attack police officers.
"There should be the same protections and penalties for attacking a nurse as there are for attacking other public safety officials," Atkins said Wednesday.
State law provides for a three-year prison sentence and $6,000 fine against those who harm law enforcement officials. But those convicted of assaulting nurses, doctors, firefighters and emergency medical technicians get two-year sentences and $4,000 fines.
According to a recent Star Tribune analysis, nurses are being attacked in record numbers. This year, nurses have filed 46 workers' compensation claims for attacks and intentional injuries suffered while on duty in hospitals, the analysis found. The number of attacks is on pace to double that of 2012 and 2013.
The problem goes beyond Minnesota. A 2011 U.S. Justice Department study found that more than 400,000 nurses and other health care professionals are the victims of violent crimes in the workplace every year. According to the American Nurses Association, one in every four nurses listed physical assault as their top job safety concern.
On Nov. 2, an elderly patient at St. John's Hospital in Maplewood attacked and injured four nurses with a metal bar. The patient, who suffered from delusions, died as police officers worked to handcuff him three blocks from the hospital, officials said.
"The recent attack at our hospital is just another example of the rising trend of violence we're seeing in hospitals and care facilities across the country," Gwynn Pepin, a nurse at St. John's, said in support of Atkins' proposal.
Atkins said his proposal may expand to encompass other protections for nurses as he further explores the issue with lawmakers and nursing professionals. The state already has spearheaded a task force to address violence in the health care field and created a tool kit for health facilities.
"I hope this is bipartisan legislation that we can work together on early in the legislative session," Atkins said. Atkins now leads the House Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy Committee, but will relinquish that post in January, when the Republican majority takes over the House.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, the incoming chair of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention committee, said he would give Atkins' proposal a full airing in his committee. But, he said, he is skeptical about increasing criminal penalties unless there is sound evidence for doing so.
He noted that in the case of the St. John's attack, the patient who wielded the metal bar reportedly was confused and disoriented, so tougher penalties would not necessarily have prevented the incident.
"I don't see how that would be a big deterrent, how that would keep someone from committing a crime like that," Cornish said.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota, said she sympathizes with the danger nurses face, but said bigger penalties may afford little protection.
"I don't think a blanket change like that is going to be effective," Abderholden said. "We could end up criminalizing people … who were not really aware of what they were doing."