Violence against NJ nurses, doctors at all-time high. Will new penalties have an impact?

Amid a rise in violence against health care workers, Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday signed into law harsher penalties against those convicted of threatening or assaulting nurses, doctors or anyone who works or volunteers in a health care setting.

The new law, called the Health Care Heroes Violence Prevention Act, enacts two main sets of new penalties:

  • Those who threatened a health care worker will automatically be charged with a disorderly persons offense, which is punishable by a prison sentence of up to six months, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

  • Those convicted of assaulting a health care worker will have to take an anger management course for up to 12 months and complete up to 30 days of community service in addition to any prison term or fine imposed on them by a judge.

The law comes less than a year after the New Jersey Hospitals Association reported a 14.6% increase in physical and verbal abuse against staff between 2019 and 2021 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many health care workers were being celebrated as frontline heroes with daily rounds of applause and pot-banging in communities across the U.S.

A health care worker conducts a drive-up COVID-19 test.
A health care worker conducts a drive-up COVID-19 test.

More than half of the incidents reported were acts of violence - an 11% increase in incidents between 2019 and 2021. About 44% were incidents of verbal abuse - a 25% increase between 2019 and 2021.

"It’s time to treat workplace violence in health care settings with the seriousness this crisis warrants," said Debbie White, president of HPAE one of the largest health care workers unions in New Jersey. "If our hospitals and nursing homes are unsafe for workers, they are unsafe for our patients too.”

New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, center, talks with heath care workers at University Hospital in Newark as they prepare to give their co-workers the first doses of the COVID vaccine on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020
New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, center, talks with heath care workers at University Hospital in Newark as they prepare to give their co-workers the first doses of the COVID vaccine on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020

About 84% of all incidents are perpetrated by patients followed by coworkers at 9% and relatives of patients at 7%, according to the hospitals association.

In March, a nurse was allegedly assaulted at St. Clare's Hospital in Morris County.

One of the most heinous attacks in recent memory occurred when a travel nurse struck a 54-year-old employee of Hackensack University Medical Center with a wrench and set her on fire in February 2022. The victim survived but suffered third-degree burns to her upper body, face and hands. The alleged assailant - Nicholas Pagano - was found dead the next day of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Violence at health care facilities may be growing, but it's been a problem for years.

Health care and social service workers “experience the highest rates of injuries caused by workplace violence and are five times as likely to suffer a workplace violence injury than workers overall,” according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018 report. Between 2016 and 2020, there were 207 health care worker deaths due to workplace violence in the U.S.

The new law also requires health care facilities to post a notice stating that it is a crime to assault a health care worker.

Rise in violence

The number of physical attacks and verbal abuse reported at New Jersey hospitals has risen in recent years.

  • 2019: 8,691

  • 2020: 9,202

  • 2021: 9,962

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: New NJ law adds penalties for violence against health care workers