Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Violence Mounts Against Kansas Health-Care Workers

So far, there have been 292 assaults at the University of Kansas Health System for the 2023 fiscal year. Advocates are pushing to increase penalties for attacks against health-care workers, but legislation remains in limbo.

The Kansas State Capitol
The Kansas State Capitol located in Topeka, Kansas. As the Kansas Legislature prepares to wrap up its work for the year (2023), a proposal to bolster criminal penalties for hitting health care workers remains in limbo.
(Steven Frame/Dreamstime/TNS)
(TNS) — Chris Buesing was walking through the hallway of an orthopedic clinic at Stormont Vail Health in Topeka, Kan., where he worked when a man came up and punched him in the face.

The attack six years ago altered the course of Buesing’s life.

His jaw was wired shut for six weeks, then had to be re-broken and shut again for eight weeks. Two years of braces followed.

“The attack not only impacted me physically but it also had an emotional impact. During the months my jaw was wired shut, I experienced anxiety and depression. I found myself always on alert. It impacted my time with my wife and children,” Buesing, who now leads Stormont Vail’s workplace safety efforts, told Kansas lawmakers in January.

Violence against health care workers has caused growing alarm in recent years, in Kansas and across the nation. Doctors, nurses and others who work in hospitals and medical facilities can often recount incidents in which they or their colleagues have been hit, slapped, spit on or otherwise battered while on the job.

Medical professionals say they recognize that individuals with dementia or other mental health conditions in some instances may physically resist treatment or become confrontational. What is causing concern now, they say, aren’t incidents arising from patients unaware of their actions, but intentional violent episodes caused by angry patients and visitors.

But as the Kansas Legislature prepares to wrap up its work for the year, a proposal to bolster criminal penalties for hitting health care workers remains in limbo. The bill would create the crime of interfering with the conduct of a health care facility and add an enhanced sentence for battery of a health care worker.

Similar provisions are already in place for Kansas firefighters, law enforcement and other first responders. In 2021, Missouri lawmakers passed a health care interference law, leaving providers on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro without similar protections.

The pandemic has left health care workers burned out and frustrated, providers say. Recruiting and retaining employees has become more difficult, and violent episodes only drive out workers more quickly.

“All of us have episodes where we know someone who has experienced violence and it was the last straw and then they walk away. Right now, we can’t replace them as easily as we were before,” Alan Verrill, CEO of AdventHealth South Overland Park, told reporters Wednesday during a panel discussion organized by the Kansas Hospital Association.

The problem predates the COVID-19 pandemic, providers say, even as stringent safety protocols in place over the past three years may have exacerbated existing issues. The Kansas Hospital Association has reported that 46 percent of hospitals in the state experience more than one episode of violence a year, and 13 percent report multiple violent incidents per week.

More than 350 physical assaults took place in the 2022 fiscal year at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, Kansas, according to the Kansas Hospital Association. An additional 292 assaults have occurred in the 2023 fiscal year.

Nationally, health care workers are at particular risk of workplace violence. In 2020, the health care field was second only to the service sector in the number of non-fatal workplace injuries from violence, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 8,600 injuries of health care workers were reported.

“We are seeing our most skilled, most experienced health care workers who are leaving frontline care because of the level of violence,” said Elijah Thompson, director of physical security at Saint Luke’s Health System, which operates hospitals in both Kansas and Missouri.

Kristi McGowin, senior director of emergency services at Children’s Mercy, which has locations in both states, described the steps the organization has taken to address and prevent violence, from stepped up security to training. The hospital has a “code strong” system where a group works to de-escalate potentially violent situations and offer resources for employees who have been attacked.

“We have daily work going on to try to improve this process and to improve the safety,” McGowin said. The proposed legislation, she said, “would really help us to be able to do what’s right for our staff.”

The proposal has attracted little public opposition, though some experts have questioned whether ratcheting up criminal penalties represents the most effective way to address a rise in violence. Tarris Rosell, an ethicist at the Kansas City-based Center for Practical Bioethics, urged lawmakers in January to take proactive measures to reduce violence.

“There are many ways to protect health care providers who are trying their best to serve patients and family members whose behavior can be unpredictable and threatening. Enacting harsher sentencing does not provide that protection, or insufficiently so,” Rosell said in written testimony at a hearing.

The measure is contained within SB 174, which includes numerous criminal justice provisions. The House and Senate have passed different versions of the legislation and it is currently in a conference committee. The House version, which passed 84-40, was the only one containing the health care provisions.

Legislative negotiators reached a compromise agreement before the end of the regular session earlier this month, said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Republican who is one of the negotiators. The Legislature will return this coming Wednesday for a wrap-up session, which Republican leadership has signaled will last only a few days.

“SB 174 is one of my primary focuses to make sure that we get across the line,” Owens said.

The Legislature has previously approved a similar proposal. Last year, Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that included the measure over concerns that other provisions gave health care providers too much protection from legal liability. Lawmakers didn’t attempt to override the veto.

“This bill includes valuable provisions that I support, such as expanding telemedicine and criminal penalties for violence against health care workers in hospital settings,” Kelly said at the time.

Sen. Ethan Corson, a Democrat, said Wednesday that if Kansas doesn’t pass a measure for health care workers, “it feels like it’s another way of giving Missouri a leg up on Kansas in terms of staffing levels and getting the employees and addressing this from a workforce angle that we need to be doing.”

©2023 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
From Our Partners