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Legislature did the right thing by passing protections for health care workers

  • Author: Becky Hultberg
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 23, 2018
  • Published May 23, 2018

There are leaves on the birch trees and the Legislature has adjourned, signaling that summer is almost upon us. Before we get busy fishing, camping, hiking or just sitting on the deck, it's good to reflect on the accomplishments of the Legislative session.

Among the most notable was House Bill 312, originally a bill to protect health care workers from violence, which became an omnibus crime bill at the end of session. As the CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association, the trade association representing hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, I have both a personal and professional connection to this legislation.

Violence in hospitals is a little known and growing problem. Caregivers in all units, including medical floors, the emergency department and even labor and delivery, are subject to increasing patient-on-caregiver and family-member-on-caregiver violence. The causes of violence are many, but they are a symptom of larger social issues. Drug and alcohol abuse, general community violence and behavioral health issues all contribute to the problem of violence in hospitals. Violence should never be an acceptable workplace hazard, but for many of our nurses, physicians and patient care technicians, it has become the new normal.

Hospitals raised this issue with Rep. Matt Claman and Rep. Chuck Kopp this past fall. They listened to horrific stories of assault and responded by introducing HB 312. The bill takes a reasonable approach to addressing violence against health care workers, giving the police and the courts new discretionary tools to protect health care workers. The legislation allows the police to arrest without a warrant for misdemeanor assault in a health care facility and it adds a felony aggravator when the assault is in a health care facility and directed at a caregiver. Because it provides discretion and not mandates, the bill will not penalize individuals experiencing a mental health crisis or other condition where arrest would not be appropriate. It is what I have grown to expect from these two lawmakers — intelligent, practical and effective legislation.

The bill started out with a narrow focus targeting violence against health care workers. But at the end of session, it grew into a much larger bill designed to protect Alaskans by strengthening our criminal justice system. And that's where the personal connection comes in.

In April of this year, my family was the victim of a crime. Several individuals broke into my son's truck in the middle of the lunch hour at South Anchorage High School. They stole his wallet, emptied his checking account and attempted to steal his truck, abandoning the attempt after they destroyed the door lock and ignition. When they were unsuccessful in getting his truck started, they stole the truck parked next to his instead.

We were fortunate. No one was hurt, and while the truck was expensive to repair, we could repair it. Am I mad about it? Sure. But I also have confidence in our criminal justice system and in our elected officials. We are on the right track in addressing these important issues in our community. HB 312 will add new tools to fight and deter crime, giving new discretion to the courts and allowing out-of-state offenses to be considered when determining conditions of release before trial. This legislation was the right bill at the right time. It will help keep us safe, while also ensuring that we are putting those with addictions and behavioral issues on a path to recovery and self-sufficiency. On behalf of ASHNHA's member hospitals and the caregivers who work in them, thank you to Rep. Claman, Rep. Kopp and the many members of the House of Representatives and Senate who co-sponsored and supported this important legislation.

Becky Hultberg serves as president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

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