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Here’s an example of Alaska legislators actually working together to solve a problem

  • Author: Tim Bradner
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 20
  • Published March 20

It's easy to be disgruntled over the Legislature's paralysis in solving some serious problems, case number one being a plan to chart a way out of the morass of our state finances.

It seems like the institutions of democracy are breaking down all over, including nationwide.

But then something happens that restores your faith. Sometimes several things. They don't get the headlines they deserve.

An example of our Legislature moving fast to solve a really serious problem is with House Bill 312, a bill that gives police the authority to quickly detain someone who is being violent in a hospital emergency room. Surprisingly, this has become a serious problem.

I was dumbfounded that police don't have this authority now — they have to wait to get a warrant. State Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, introduced HB 316 to solve the problem, and not only does it have a list of 10 bipartisan House co-sponsors, split about evenly among parties, but it is speeding through the Legislature at lightning speed compared with the pace of most bills.

Among the co-sponsors, besides Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, are House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, an Anchorage Democrat, and Minority Leader Charisse Millett, a Republican from Anchorage.

Claman introduced HB 312 on Jan. 26. It passed the House 31-1 on Feb. 16. Only Rep. David Eastman, R-Palmer, voted against it. The Senate Judiciary Committee took the bill up on March 2 and after two hearings sent it on to the Senate Finance Committee on Monday, March 19.

Not to downplay Claman's role, but the real yeoman work on this is being done by Kopp, a former police officer who has firsthand knowledge of the problems health providers are facing with increased violence.

It's really disheartening but nurses and other health professionals are being increasingly subjected to assaults, and with injuries resulting at times.

I listened to witness testimony in a hearing in House Judiciary Committee, which Claman chairs, on Feb. 5 and it was riveting:

Nurses spoke about being punched, kicked, spit on and cursed. A nurse at Juneau's Bartlett Hospital talked of a patient who tried to strangle her with plastic IV tubing. Another spoke of being pushed hard against a wall and breaking a tooth.

Julie Taylor, CEO at Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage, said her hospital has seen 80 incidents of violence in the last year. Dr. Anne Zink, Mat-Su Regional emergency room physician, said her institution has seen a fourfold increase in violent incidents in the last year.

Juneau Bartlett Hospital CEO Chuck Bell said his hospital has doubled its security staff and has had to ramp up staff training in de-escalation strategies during emotional confrontations. "This takes away money we could use for medical care," Bell told the House committee.

Police can arrest and remove people if a felony-level incident occurs — an assault that causes injury, for example — but have limited authority when an assault is low-level or the situation is just threatening.

Most incidents occur in emergency rooms where people arrive in an agitated state, drunk or high on drugs, witnesses told the House committee. A high percentage of incidents are related to mental health issues aggravated by shortages of behavioral health professionals and treatment facilities.

If mentally disturbed people have nowhere else to go they go to the ER, and the hospital staff takes the brunt. "They didn't teach us about this in school," one nurse said.

While patients themselves can be disruptive if alcohol, drugs or mental health problems are involved, a lot of the incidents, particularly in the ER, are caused by family members who become upset if they believe their loved one is not being cared for fast enough, or who don't understand what the medical staff are doing.

Solutions? They are complicated.

Beyond giving law enforcement officers the tools they need to intervene before people are injured, addressing the root causes bring up familiar problems, the drug epidemic and the severe shortage of facilities and people to help people with mental health issues.

"Emergency rooms have become dumping grounds for people with problems," said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, who was at the House Judiciary Committee meeting in February.

This isn't the only example of bipartisan efforts at work within what seems a gridlock. Some examples: Sen. Cathy Giessel, an Anchorage Republican, is working with House Democrats on several health care bills, including Rep. Dave Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, on a bill bringing pharmacy benefit managers under tighter regulation; Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, on a naturopathy bill; and Democrat Claman on a marijuana education and treatment bill.

Working "across the aisle" is nothing new, of course. In years past it wasn't unusual at all. We just don't see enough of it these days, it seems.

Still, it's heartening to see the Legislature move quickly when there's an urgency (nurses getting beat up, good grief!) but also when there's consensus. When there's not consensus things bog down, but we shouldn't be too cynical about that.

The checks and balances in our uniquely American system of government forces those with competing views and interests to slug it out. That's really what's happening with the fiscal debate, although it's really slow-motion combat. It isn't pretty, either.

Tim Bradner is editor of the Alaska Legislative Digest and is the Visiting Atwood Professor of Journalism at University of Alaska Anchorage this year. 

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