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Forensic Nurse Shortage in VA Means Sexual Assault Victims Jump Through Hoops To Resolve Cases

A new study finds that Virginia doesn’t have enough nurses to provide exams in the aftermath of a sexual assault.  A survey of forensic programs and nurses found there are fewer than 200 trained forensic nurses in Virginia out of 93,902 licensed registered nurses. 

This often means victims have to travel in order to receive the treatment they need. 

The study’s author, Stephen Weiss, presented the report to the Virginia State Crime Commission on Tuesday. Weiss, senior health policy analyst with the Virginia Joint Commission on Health Care said it’s common for sexual assault victims to travel for hours before they find a hospital that has a qualified forensic nurse.  They examine victims and gather medical evidence for a criminal investigation. 

“Patients will show up at a hospital after they’ve been assaulted,” Weiss said. “They might get their medical issues taken care of.And when they need to have evidence collection done, the hospital will say, ‘We don’t do that. You’ll have to go to another hospital’.”

Weiss said many hospitals can’t afford to do the exams because the current reimbursement rates don’t cover the actual cost. Virginia’s Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) program, which is a division of the Virginia Victims Fund, pays $1,200 for an exam that Weiss said costs $2,823. 

“It’s a high-cost business decision to do this program,” Weiss said. 

He said the exams are time-consuming and labor intensive, sometimes taking up to 12 hours. 

Weiss recommends the state increase the reimbursement rate so more hospitals, community health centers and local health departments can afford to have a forensic nurse exam program. 

Victims of sexual assault are often on the hook for medical bills associated with the assault when they don’t have to be, according to Weiss’s study. 

The Virginia Victim Fund covers victims of sexual assault as long as their exams occur within 120 hours of assault, the assault occurred in Virginia, forensic evidence is collected and the assault is reported to law enforcement. 

Weiss suggests restructuring the SAFE program so that all victims of sexual assault who undergo forensic exams are covered by the Virginia Victim Fund, even if they don’t file a police report. 

Weiss said 39% of victims who receive a sexual assault exam involving a physical evidence kit don’t report the assault to law enforcement.  That means they can’t access the Virginia Victims Fund for any medical expenses they have as a result of the assault.  

“There’s nowhere for you to go except file an insurance claim or pay it out of pocket,” Weiss said.