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Wyoming is the only state without specific protections against violence in hospitals

View of the roundabout in front of a five-story white building.
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Campbell County Memorial Hospital in Gillette.

As violence against healthcare workers continues to rise, healthcare administrators asked Wyoming lawmakers to enhance the penalties for violence against their employees. Lawmakers rejected that request.

Wyoming's Joint Judiciary Committee considered a bill Tuesday, Sept. 14, that would have made attacking or threatening healthcare workers its own felony, but ultimately killed the bill on a 5-8 vote.

Several lawmakers on the committee said they were skeptical such a bill would actually curb the violence. But healthcare providers and leaders testified in favor of the bill.

Campbell County Health Trustee Lisa Harry said healthcare workers expect and accept some level of danger in their work. But the level of violence in hospitals has grown to the point that it's pushing people to retire early or leave the field.

"We aren't protecting our workers," Harry said. "They shouldn't be subjected to any of this when they come to work. They shouldn't fear coming to work, they shouldn't fear injury."

The rising tide of violence against healthcare workers is a national issue. But Wyoming is the only state in the union without specific protections against – or penalties for – assaulting a nurse, doctor or other hospital employee.

Josh Hannes, the Wyoming Hospital Association's vice president, said the last year and a half has seen 121 attacks on workers in Wyoming healthcare facilities.

Nationally, Hannes said, more than 5,000 nurses were assaulted in three months between April and June.

"And of course, these are obviously just reported incidents," Hannes said. "So for context, that equates to two assaults every hour, 51 every day and 1,739 every month."

Sheila Bush, Wyoming Medical Society executive director, testified that the "overall elevated level of tension in society" was contributing to the rising violence in hospitals. She endorsed stiffer penalties for those who attacked doctors and nurses and pointed to the stiffer penalties that already exist for assaulting members of law enforcement.

"We, collectively as society, decided that enhanced penalties for assault or battery against a peace officer was something that was really important," Bush said. "If the question today was to reduce those penalties and remove that protection or enhanced penalty for police officers, what would the arguments be against doing so? I think the same reasons that come to mind should similarly come to mind in enhancing the policies and penalties with healthcare workers."

Violence against either healthcare workers or law enforcement could have ripple effects, Bush said, because it interferes with a public servant’s ability to perform their duties. She also pointed out that peace officers, unlike healthcare workers, often have the means to defend themselves, being both armed and trained in self-defense.

But the bill was struck down. Many of the lawmakers said it wouldn’t work to deter the violence.

Representative Karlee Provenza of Laramie said it wouldn't address the underlying causes of violence, such as poverty and other societal pressures.

"This isn't going to solve the issue," she said. "I think we need to talk about what those real solutions look like. I know that's a difficult thing to pinpoint and nail down. But I want to do that."

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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