Wyo. panel votes down specific penalty for violence against health care workers

Officials voiced a concern that without this law, the state may face a disadvantage in recruitment


Hannah Black
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle

CHEYENNE — A draft bill to create specific offenses for assault, threat of violence and battery against health care providers failed a Tuesday vote.

Wyoming's Joint Judiciary Committee rejected the measure. Testimony said incidences of such violence have increased in recent years. Witnesses sought stronger penalties.

After a lengthy discussion, the committee entered five "yes" and eight "no" votes. It had requested the Legislative Service Office draft such a bill at the committee's last meeting, in Lander in May.

The proposal used the same definitions of assault and battery currently in Wyoming law, as well as the penalties. Simple assault — an attempt to cause bodily injury — or a threat of violence against a health care worker would have been a misdemeanor punishable with a fine up to $750. Battery — "intentionally, knowingly or recklessly" causing another person bodily injury by using physical force — against a health care worker would have been a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months of incarceration and up to $750.

This would have required an offender to have "reasonably" known a person was a health care provider, and the provider must have been "performing duties within the scope of his authority or employment as a health care provider" during the incident.

Josh Hannes, vice president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, and others voiced concern that Wyoming not having this new law may put the state at a disadvantage for recruitment. The industry is struggling to fill existing positions, the committee heard.

Between January 2021 and June 2022, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services received 121 workers' compensation claims following an alleged attack in a health care setting, according to Hannes.

Lisa Harry said that before she was a member of the Campbell County Health Board, she worked in emergency services.

"I've been spit on, I've been pushed, kicked, knocked over, had a lot of that, and, like I say, you expect that. But these kinds of incidents have increased so much that I have to question: Is this enough?" Harry testified. "We aren't protecting our workers."

Harry and others mentioned recent incidents, including a lab technician punched in the leg by a patient while drawing blood. Harry said an off-duty law enforcement officer become angry at a hospital and began throwing things at a nurse.

"We need to impose stronger penalties and send a message to these people who come into emergency services, into the hospital, and knowingly and purposefully abuse our workers," Harry continued. "It's bad enough that we can't get enough nurses, but to have people coming in there and fear for their safety ... The hospital should be their first place for safety."

She added that state laws should also protect first responders like EMTs, as well as people like hospital receptionists, who are often the first to encounter patients.

CRMC

Tracy Garcia is the chief nursing officer at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. She said that even CRMC's "very robust security program ... is not deterring people from misbehavior in our organization."

Within four months, the local hospital saw 25 incidents of violence by patients, Garcia said. There were physical assaults and others involved 12 verbal threats, "a lot of them including threat of life." Garcia and others said these incidents increasingly don't involve substances or mental health conditions.

When asked about the rate of prosecution of these violent incidents, Garcia said it had seemingly been low in recent years.

Stakeholders argued health care workers should be afforded similar protections as law enforcement. Harry said such medical employees aren't trained before they enter the workforce to deal with violence, and they don't carry weapons.

Concerns

Sen. John Kolb, R- Rock Springs, said he's concerned about the possibility of someone being "brought up on charges for looking at somebody wrong."

"I'm worried about that bar being so low it'll turn into, I'll use the word, a 'woke' situation, where it's perceived incorrectly," the senator said.

Hannes and others rejected this idea, saying that the threats they'd encountered or heard from patients or patients' families had been "explicit threats of violence."

Rep. Karlee Provenza, D- Laramie, and some other lawmakers had said they may not support this bill, because this penalty seemed unlikely to reduce violence.

Although states have recently enacted similar laws, Hannes said this type of legislation is too new to have sufficient data on whether it works. He added that such a law in Wyoming would simply be "a piece of braided initiatives."

While the state doesn't currently require health care facilities to have violence prevention programs in place, many do, Hannes said, and federal legislation is currently moving through congressional committees.

Backers

Some lawmakers favor the legislation.

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R- Cheyenne, said Wyoming seems "to be the only state that doesn't have any type of, let's say, enhancement or acknowledgment of violence toward people in the health care industry."

"Some enhancement is appropriate (and) necessary," Zwonitzer said.

An amendment by Rep. Ember Oakley, R- Riverton, to increase the penalty for battery to up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, was widely supported by committee members. This is the same consequence as interference with a peace officer.

Sen. R.J. Kost, R- Powell, said such a law is "the right thing to do" and it bothers him someone could be cited for such an offense and "walk away."

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