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."