LINCOLN — The 200-pound man seemed extremely anxious as he walked into the emergency room.
A young nurse staffing the ER reached out, as she was trained to do, asking what was troubling him.
What followed was a horrific beating that left the 120-pound nurse out of work for six months and permanently traumatized.
About 1,300 assaults of nurses, nurse aides, clerical staff and other health professionals occur every day nationally, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
That and similar stories helped push passage in the Nebraska Legislature on Thursday of a bill to toughen penalties on those who assault nurses and others who work in hospitals and health clinics.
Under Legislative Bill 677, sponsored by State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, assaulting a health professional would bring the same potential penalty as assaulting a police officer: It would be a Class 3A felony, punishable by up to five years in prison or up to a $10,000 fine, or both.
Each emergency room and clinic would also be required to post a sign at the entrance warning that assaulting workers is a felony.
Currently, a typical assault would result in a misdemeanor charge, which carries less serious penalties.
Lathrop said health professionals deserve special treatment because they are particularly vulnerable and because of the work they do. Nurses, he said, must work in close proximity to patients and assume a level of trust with them.
"Nurses open themselves up to provide care to someone and, unexpectedly, they're assaulted. They're not expecting to be hit," he said. "It's becoming more and more of a problem."
Lathrop, an attorney, represented a registered nurse at Papillion's Midlands Hospital who was assaulted by a mentally disturbed patient in 2007. The nurse now has permanent eye injuries.
Several other stories of violence in emergency and hospital rooms in Nebraska were aired at a public hearing on the bill last year. Health professionals say they can be in harm's way when gang members or upset family members go to an emergency room seeking retaliation after a shooting or an assault.
Officials from Omaha-based Alegent Health testified that 65 assaults occurred in a year's time at their five hospitals in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area.
"Violence is part of our society, and it's brought in from the streets to the emergency ward," said Karen Wiley, an Omaha nurse. "People who are intoxicated will act out and hit someone. Because it's a misdemeanor, arrests are not always made."
LB 677 was one of several bills given final-round approval Thursday and sent to Gov. Heineman for his signature.
The measures include bills aimed at luring a $1.2 billion data center known as "Project Edge" to Kearney, Neb., and a $200 million data center called "Project Photon" to the Omaha area.
One bill would allow Nebraska utilities to offer below-market electrical rates to large data centers, which use tremendous amounts of energy to power warehouses filled with computer servers. The other bill would provide sales, property and personal property tax benefits to data centers that invest at least $200 million and create at least 30 jobs.
The Legislature's fiscal office projected that Nebraska would collect about $14 million more in sales and income taxes than it would return in incentives over the 15-year life of the tax incentives.
Among the topics of the other bills that received approval were:
» Impeachment: Elected officials could be impeached for misdeeds committed while running for office if voters approve Legislative Resolution 19CA. Lawmakers voted 45-0 to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Currently, only those misdeeds committed after taking office can be the basis for impeachment. The issue arose when former University of Nebraska Regent David Hergert was being investigated for falsifying campaign finance reports. He was alleged to have committed several violations as a candidate but was impeached and removed from office only because he signed a false report after being sworn in as a regent.
» License plates: Owners of collectible cars and trucks could get "special interest" license plates and would be required to have only one plate, under LB 216. Special interest vehicles do not include cars and trucks used for regular transportation.
» Animals in law: Cities and counties could not give animals any legal status other than as property under LB 459. Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala proposed the measure after some cities in other states replaced the term "pet owner" with the term "guardian" in ordinances and codes, changing animals' legal rights.
» Dog kennels: The state could deny a license to a commercial dog or cat breeder deemed unsuitable because of convictions for poor animal care, under LB 427. Dog kennels would also have to give animals access to exercise areas or walk them at least twice a day. Breeding dogs would have to have a wellness check by a veterinarian every three years, as well.
» School to work: Young parents on welfare could count school time toward their work requirements under LB 507. Current law requires welfare recipients to log 20 hours per week in work activities but does not count high school or high school equivalency classes toward that total.
» Child sex assault: A person who suffered sexual assault as a child would have longer to file lawsuits under LB 612. The bill extends the statute of limitations for suits to 12 years after the victim turns 21, up from four years currently.
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