State News

Representatives aim to increase penalties for assaulting licensed nurses

Nursing advocates testified before the Wisconsin Judiciary and Public Safety Committee about the workplace violence healthcare professionals endure in light of circulating bill to change assault laws.

Image By: Will Cioci

The Wisconsin Judiciary and Public Safety Committee convened in a public hearing at the Capitol Tuesday to discuss a bill that would allow district attorneys to deliver felony charges to those who injure nurses.

Under current Wisconsin law, a person who intentionally harms another person — including a nurse — can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor. This proposed bill would recategorize the level of offense to a Class H felony charge when the victim is a nurse. 

Former mental health technician Rep. Gae Magnafici, R-Dresser, testified about workplace violence she experienced while nursing and how it impacted the quality of care she could provide to patients. 

Magnafici recalled emergency department incidents, including a bomb threat and a man who killed himself by driving into the parking lot. She intends to mitigate problems that arise when there is decreased security staff, violent drug-seekers and stressed visitors, which often created an unsafe environment for the nursing staff at her hospital.

“My colleagues and I were walking on eggshells,” Magnafici said. “The police were no strangers to our hospital.” 

Chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Nurses Association, Gina Dennik-Champion, explained that violence against healthcare professionals is common. Nurses are reluctant to officially report abusive incidents because they believe it’s a part of their job or feel too powerless to come forward.

“Reporting workplace abuse was a low priority compared to caring for our patients,” Magnafici said. “As nurses, we tend to place our own safety and wellbeing second.” 

Many violent incidents occur when families of patients become overwhelmed by upsetting news or long waits. When visitors are placed in a stressful environment, “the skeletons really do come out of the closet,” Dennik-Champion said.

However, the bill’s sponsors clarified that patients suffering from mental challenges like dementia should not be subject to felony charges for injuring nurses. 

In opposition to the bill’s authors, Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, expressed concerns over the bill’s specificity, questioning why the legislation does not cover other professionals in similar roles like doctors or lawyers.

“Why is it if I get hit, it isn’t as important as if you get hit?” Risser questioned. 

Co-writer of the bill, Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, defended the proposed legislation by comparing it to the current legal consequences for battery against police officers.

“Swinging your fist at someone in a bar is a little bit different scenario than swinging your first at someone that’s providing care in a hospital,” Kooyenga said in response to Risser.

Magnafici said she didn’t reflect on the abuse she endured as a nurse until she began working on this piece of legislation. She hopes the bill will remind nurses of their work’s importance and empowers them to report workplace harassment.

“I ignored the dangers to myself because the care of my patients was my only focus,” Magnafici said. “Nurses should not be afraid to go to work.” 

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