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“Va. bill could enforce penalty for threatening healthcare providers: 'Right now the law is silent'

By:  Sara McCloskey

Posted: Jan 29, 2019 06:12 PM EST

RICHMOND, Va. --- Threatening to do harm to a healthcare provider could land you in jail - if a bill passes the General Assembly.

Dr. Robin Hemphill, the chief quality and safety officer at VCU Health, has seen and heard of cases where patients or their families get aggressive.

“We almost feel like it’s our job to take this,” she explained. “People leave, and they feel like they carry this home with them. They will stay awake with it all night.”

Sometimes providers realize these tendencies aren’t something the patient can control. In those situations, Dr. Hemphill says they try to take care of patients immediate medical needs, as these might be side effects.

“We don’t call that 'somebody being abusive' - they can’t help it,” she said. “But if we believe however that they are making the choice and they are making decisions to be aggressive, then the first thing is to make sure you’re safe in the room.”

In some cases, law enforcement is called if the situation gets out of hand.

These incidents take a toll on healthcare workers, Dr. Hemphill says.

“There is a point and time where people are really too frightened to go back in and take care of a patient or it really gets to the point where I just don’t want to do this job anymore,” Dr. Hemphill said.

After seeing these issues in other hospitals across the Commonwealth, Sen. Janet Howell (D-District 32) put forward a bill to create new protections.

“Right now the law is silent,” Sen Howell said.

Hospital workers in the senator’s district approached her after they were verbally assaulted by a patient who came into the emergency room.

“[The patient] started threatening in the most repugnant ways the nurses there. Threatening to stalk them, kill their children and other unspeakable things,” she explained.

SB1395 makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to “make an oral threat to kill or to do bodily harm” to a healthcare worker while they’re working in a clinic or hospital. According to the language of the bill, if someone is convicted of this they could be sentenced to 15 days in jail. In the Virginia code, someone convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor could face up to a year in jail.

The legislation adds health care providers to a law already on the books that protect teachers in the same way.

“So, what we did is just try to build on the protections teachers have and add it for healthcare workers,” Sen. Howell said.

As for providers, they want to make sure others know this treatment isn’t okay and won’t be tolerated.

“We’re really encouraging people to say it’s not part of the job, you are not here to be belittled and berated,” Dr. Hemphill said.

The Senate passed the bill last week 28-12. It has since been referred to the House Committee for Courts of Justice.