Attack in the ER: Vt. lawmakers look to protect health care workers

Published: Feb. 10, 2023 at 6:27 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Health care workers say they are being assaulted by the people they care for at an alarming rate. But some say a proposed law aimed at protecting those workers might not be the answer.

Violence in the emergency department is now in the spotlight at the Vermont Statehouse. Lawmakers in Montpelier have been hearing from health care workers from every corner of the state, like Marc Sacco, the emergency department manager at Mount Ascutney Hospital in Windsor.

“Please take this one step along this long journey whether it duplicates something or not, it’s something that we need because the guy that assaulted me got nothing,” Sacco said.

The one step Sacco and others are advocating for is a new law that would permit law enforcement officers to directly arrest a person who interferes with health care services rather than just issue a court citation.

“It’s a deterrent that if people know that they can be removed from the situation, legally removed, perhaps they will go through the de-escalation process more willingly,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden County.

“It really shows that there is a public policy commitment to decreasing workplace violence for health care facilities,” said Devon Green of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Care Systems.

Green says the bill is just one part of the solution.

“It’s something that can be done immediately and that’s something we are looking for,” Green said.

But opponents of the law say it would accomplish nothing.

“Current law under Rule 3 would allow law enforcement to arrest individuals who are causing havoc in emergency rooms and health care centers alike as it is,” Vermont Defender General Matt Valerio said.

Valerio says people causing trouble in emergency rooms and health care centers are not thinking about the repercussions of their actions.

“It’s usually people in distress; those are not the people who are going to be deterred by what’s on the books because if they would be deterred, they already would be deterred,” he said.

Valerio says an effective solution would focus on prevention rather than punishment.

“I think we have to get the root cause of what causes people to be in despair. and what causes them to be a danger to themselves and others,” he said.

So what are the root causes? People working in health care facilities say verbal and physical assaults have increased since the pandemic.

“This is definitely a new issue,” said Sheena Fisher, the director of emergency services at the Rutland Regional Medical Center. “I can’t speak to exactly as to why that’s happening but I can definitely validate that the last two years we have seen an increase in violence.”

But ERs are no longer crowded with COVID patients and the assault rate remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Green of the hospitals association says emergency departments are being filled with people who don’t need emergency care, many with mental health or drug addiction needs or simply needing shelter.

“The social services, community services safety net is really frayed and when there is not a place for people to go, they end up in the emergency department, the only place that’s open 24/7,” Green said.

Senator Lyons agrees the proposed law aimed at arresting offenders is only one part of a bigger issue.

“If we don’t have housing, if we don’t have transportation, we don’t have counseling and care for people in the community, then they can’t leave a hospital or an ED,” Lyons said.

The bill currently under review in the Vermont Senate does not address any of those issues and no one I talked to for this story offered any broader, long-term solutions.

But there is universal concern that without some steps to improve safety, it’s going to be harder to recruit and retain these critical, front-line health care workers.

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