Assaults on health care professionals discussed

Senators advanced a bill from general file Feb. 1 that would extend minimum sentences for persons convicted of assault on a health care professional.

Under LB677, introduced by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, a person who is convicted of assault on a health care professional while the health care provider is engaged in his or her official duties, would serve a mandatory minimum sentence of:
• six months imprisonment for third degree assault;
• one year imprisonment for second degree assault; and
• two years imprisonment for first degree assault.

Lathrop said health care providers work in unique environments where many patients and family members are coping with stressful issues that can cause people to become violent. More than 2,000 assaults were reported by registered nurses in 2009, he said.

“Health care providers are vulnerable to these assaults because they are in close proximity to the assailant,” Lathrop said.

The Judiciary Committee offered an amendment to the bill that would require a health care professional to have been assaulted while performing their official duties at a hospital or health clinic for the mandatory minimum sentence to be applied.

The amendment also would require hospitals and health clinics to display signs informing patients of the mandatory minimum sentence for assault on health care professionals.

Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas spoke in support of the amendment and the bill. By virtue of the oath that health practitioners take, she said, they do not have the luxury of choosing whether or not to put themselves in these types of situations.

“[Medical practitioners] are, by nature, required to put any concern for their own personal safety aside and offer the services that they are obligated to,” she said.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell also spoke in support of the bill, saying violence has become an increasing problem for hospitals.

The state currently faces a nursing shortage, Campbell said, and in some cases nurses have indicated that they are leaving their careers due to assault injuries that they have sustained on the job.

“That, to me, is part of the reason why this bill before us is so important,” she said. “We have to make these facilities a safe place for all of us to go.”

Omaha Sen. Brenda Council spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it would create different classes of individuals in health care facilities. If an aide at a clinic is a victim of such an assault, she said, this provision would not apply to them.

“I quite frankly do not see the need for the bill,” Council said. “If the assault rises to the level of a first degree assault, the person committing the assault would be charged regardless of whether or not the victim falls within the definition of a health care provider.”

Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash opposed the amendment and the bill, saying people who are being violent will not change their behavior based on a sign about increased penalties.

“I think we will send a message to health care workers that we are protecting them, when [this bill] does nothing to protect them,” Coash said.

The amendment was adopted 29-3 and LB677 advanced from general file on a 34-4 vote.

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