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Budget proposals address shortage of sexual assault nurse examiners

Map with pins
A map showing where sexual assault nurse examiners work in Virginia. (Courtesy of RAINN)

Virginia doesn’t have enough nurses to examine people who have been sexually assaulted. The problem has plagued the Commonwealth for years. But state lawmakers want to set aside money in the upcoming budget to help fill the gaps.

VPM reported on the shortage back in 2019 after the legislature’s Joint Commission on Healthcare released a study that revealed the scope of the nursing shortage. It found there are fewer than 200 trained forensic nurses, also called sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE) in Virginia out of 93,902 licensed registered nurses.

There are two funding proposals moving through the General Assembly right now. The Senate’s budget proposal includes $1 million for sexual assault nurses over the next two years, while the House budget includes $2.8 million over two years, but for the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Victim Fund as a whole, not just for forensic nurses. Another proposal, HB 404, would make it easier for forensic nurses to testify in cases via video conference rather than traveling to court - a savings for hospitals and a benefit to patients who need attention.

Forensic nurses provide medical care and support to victims in the immediate afternmath of a sexual assault.  They also collect the physical evidence needed in court cases to identify and prosecute assailants.

Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) stressed the importance of nurses collecting forensic evidence immediately after an assault.

“If they’re not there, the case may not be brought at all,” Bell said. “And if it is brought, it is less likely to be successful. It disempowers victims of sexual assault, and it ensures that even where they wish to bring a case, they may not be successful when they do so.”

Forensic nursing is a delicate, crucial service that requires special expertise. But there are vast swaths of Virginia, especially rural communities, where people who have been sexualy assaulted have to wait hours or travel out of state for this care.

“That also means that survivor cannot eat, drink, change clothes for hours to ensure that the evidence of their assault can be documented and collected,” said Erin Earp, with the the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN.

April Bennett is a forensic nurse examiner in Pulaski County in southwest Virginia. She said during a press conference at the state capitol Wednesday there are at least 14 counties to the south and west of her that have no forensic nursing programs.

“Many of those patients simply opt not to receive the services and not to go forward with anything because they don’t have the time to spend a full, entire day trying to get services and have evidence collected,” she said.

Bennett is the only forensic nurse at the clinic

“If I’m out of town, like today, being here, there is no coverage in Pulaski,” she said.

Only two hospitals in Virginia are staffed full time with SANEs. Bon Secours in Richmond and Inova Fairfax. Hospitals aren’t adequately reimbursed for forensic care and the ones that are, rely heavily on philanthropic gifts.

Advocates say this funding will move the state in the right direction, but the level of crisis is largely underestimated.