No enhanced penalties for assaults on healthcare workers, state committee says; local legislators split vote

A legislative committee has decided not to advance a bill that would enhance the penalties for assaults against healthcare workers in Wyoming.

A group of healthcare representatives had requested the legislation during a Judiciary Committee meeting this spring in Lander.

The committee considered the proposal as a bill draft last month, inviting more testimony from healthcare officials who expressed support for the idea.

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No protections

During her time in front of the committee last month, Wyoming Nurses Association lobbyist Toni Decklever pointed out that Wyoming is the only state in the nation without any legislation that specifically protects healthcare workers.

That omission “can be a factor” when trying to recruit nurses to the state, she said.

Wyoming Hospital Association vice-president Josh Hannes called it a “competitive disadvantage” in the national market for healthcare workers.

“Nurses can go anywhere,” he said. “We want to make sure we have an environment that’s enticing for them.”

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Violence has become a “focus issue” in the U.S. healthcare industry, Hannes said, noting that 5,000 nurses were assaulted on the job nationwide during the second quarter of 2022.

“That equates to two assaults every hour,” he said.

In Wyoming, the Department of Workforce Services recorded 121 incidents of violence in healthcare settings resulting in worker compensation claims between January of 2021 and June of 2022, Hannes said.

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At just one institution in the state – Cheyenne Regional Medical Center – there have been 26 incidents of workplace violence in the past four months, including 13 that involved “actual physical assaults,” according to hospital vice president and chief nursing officer Tracy Garcia.

The increase in violence contributes to the nursing shortage Wyoming is already facing, she added, because “we don’t have a pipeline of staff that want to come into healthcare professions, or stay in the profession, because they’re being abused by patients and their family members.”

Societal factors

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some reasons for the nationwide increase in violence against healthcare workers, Wyoming Medical Association executive director Sheila Bush said, including a “lack of regulation and laws in states.”

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Other factors the CDC highlighted include “high concentration of poverty; diminished economic opportunities; socially disorganized neighborhoods; high levels of family disruption; low community participation; social and cultural norms that encourage violence; (and) health, educational and social policies that help to maintain economic or social inequalities between groups of society,” Bush said.

She also pointed to “staffing shortages and an overall elevated tension in our society.”

With all of those elements in mind, Bush said enhanced penalties for assaults against healthcare workers wouldn’t be the “silver bullet” that solves the problem of violence in healthcare settings, but “it is an important piece of the puzzle.”

Local vote

Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, voted in favor of the bill draft last month after proposing an amendment, which passed, lessening the penalty for assault against a healthcare worker from a felony to a misdemeanor with enhanced jail time and fees.

“I think it’s a compromise,” Oakley said.

Wyoming Sen. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep, who represents a portion of Fremont County, also voted in favor of the bill draft initially, but he changed his vote to “no” after the roll call was completed.

The final vote count was 5-8.

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