Assault in the ER: Can legislation stop violence against nurses in the ER?

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Nurses gathered at the State House to share stories of assault in the emergency room. Could a bill for a law change help stop violence in the very place meant to treat its effects? Lawmakers have some mixed reviews.

The bill, S. 1096, was heard by a Senate panel. However, it's stalled. It would make assault on a healthcare worker that of a high and aggravated nature, which is a felony. That would mean stricter penalties on the assailant.

Workers' stories collectively cause concern for some.

"I've had a nurse get punched in the face and her jaw broke," one Kershaw County nurse said, "I had a nurse bit by a patient."

"The violence is increasing," another nurse in Richland County said, "they're resulting to violence as opposed to speaking with people."

Meredith Gibbs has been a nurse for 18 years, and said, "We are there to meet you in your worst time. We are not there to get punched, kicked, bit, spit on."

Gibbs is one who wants the law change with the hopes it can act as a deterrent to behavior that causes her to fear for her safety while on the job helping others.

"We don't have a choice but to treat you whether you're acting belligerent or being verbally aggressive or beating on staff or doctors," another nurse from Kershaw County, April Wach, added.

Senator Marlon Kimpson (D- Charleston), one of the bill's sponsors, says its purpose is to charge people who intentionally assault nurses and healthcare workers in their clear mind.

However, not everyone agrees the bill wouldn't have unintended consequences. Some are speaking up on behalf of the mentally ill or people under the influence of medication, who may not be able to help themselves.

Buddy Wier is one mental health advocate against the bill, who testified in one meeting, saying, "some people with Alzheimer's illnesses can be aggressive. The way this bill is stated, if someone just happens to slap someone that would be a felony high and aggravated nature assault with the potential 20 years sentence," he explained.

He doesn't feel the bill would really act as a deterrent to stop the violence, because he says most people with violent tendencies act in a heat of passion, and "really aren't thinking about the consequences when it happens."

Nurses are optimistic that language in the bill could be fixed to convey that mentally ill are not the targets.

Senator Gerald Malloy (D- Darlington) says the system in place for assault and varying degrees of it with punishment assigned to each is all that's necessary. There's expected to be another meeting on the bill next week.

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