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Attacks on emergency room workers prompt debate over tougher penalties in California

Sejal Parekh, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in Health & Fitness

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Patients hurl verbal abuse at Michelle Ravera every day in the emergency room. Physical violence is less common, she said, but has become a growing threat.

Ravera, an ER nurse at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, recalled an incident in which an agitated patient wanted to leave. “Without any warning he just reached up, grabbed my glasses, and punched me in the face,” said Ravera, 54. “And then he was getting ready to attack another patient in the room.” Ravera and hospital security guards subdued the patient so he couldn’t hurt anyone else.

Violence against health care workers is on the rise, including in the ER, where tensions can run high as staff juggle multiple urgent tasks. COVID-19 only made things worse: With routine care harder to come by, many patients ended up in the ER with serious diseases — and brimming with frustrations.

In California, simple assault against workers inside an ER is considered the same as simple assault against almost anyone else, and carries a maximum punishment of a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. In contrast, simple assault against emergency medical workers in the field, such as an EMT responding to a 911 call, carries maximum penalties of a $2,000 fine and a year in jail. Simple assault does not involve the use of a deadly weapon or the intention to inflict serious bodily injury.

Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, who worked as an EMT, has authored a bill to make the punishments consistent: a $2,000 fine and one year in jail for simple assault on any on-the-job emergency health care worker, whether in the field or an ER. The measure would also eliminate the discrepancy for simple battery.

Patients and family members are assaulting staff and “doing things they shouldn’t be doing to the people that are there to take care of your loved ones,” said Rodriguez, a Democrat from Pomona. The bill passed the state Assembly unanimously in January and awaits consideration in the Senate.

 

Rodriguez has introduced similar measures twice before. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed one in 2015, saying he doubted a longer jail sentence would deter violence. “We need to find more creative ways to protect the safety of these critical workers,” he wrote in his veto message. The 2019 bill died in the state Senate.

Rodriguez said ERs have become more dangerous for health care workers since then and that “there has to be accountability” for violent behavior. Opponents fear stiffer penalties would be levied disproportionately on patients of color or those with developmental disabilities. They also point out that violent patients can already face penalties under existing assault and battery laws.

Data from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health shows that reported attacks on ER workers by patients, visitors, and strangers jumped about 25% from 2018 to 2023, from 2,587 to 3,238. The rate of attacks per 100,000 ER visits also increased.

Punching, kicking, pushing, and similar aggression accounted for most of the attacks. Only a small number included weapons.

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