What states are doing to address dental worker violence

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With healthcare workers at a disproportionate risk of workplace violence such as the shooting in February at a dental practice in California that left a dentist dead and two employees injured, states in the U.S. have or are trying to beef up laws to better protect them.

In February, the Kentucky House of Representatives unanimously passed HB 194, which if passed by the state Senate and signed into law by the governor, would expand assault protections to healthcare workers statewide.

Furthermore, it would make an assault or an attempted assault on workers at healthcare settings, including dental offices, clinics, and nursing homes, a felony that carries a sentence of one to five years in prison. If the assault arises during a declared emergency, each incident could be prosecuted as a Class C felony. If found guilty, a person could face five to 10 years in prison.

Healthcare workers are five times more likely to experience violence at their workplaces than those in other careers. This accounts for 73% of nonfatal injuries from violence at workplaces, according to a viewpoint published February 22 on JAMA Network.

Despite this and the recent string of violence to strike dentistry, there has been no action taken by U.S. Congress to address healthcare-based violence. Instead, states, such as Kentucky, are addressing the problem.

Although states’ approaches have varied, they are addressing the problem with two types of laws. The first type of state law has offenders facing longer, stronger punishments. On the other end, some states' laws treat assault against a healthcare worker as its own misdemeanor or felony crime. In this second type of law, the classification of the crime becomes heightened compared to other types of assaults. Approximately 40 states have these laws on the books, wrote the authors, led by I. Glenn Cohen, JD, of Harvard Law School.

“Measuring the impact of both of these types of laws is difficult and still developing, but many health organizations and academics have endorsed improving workplace standards and strengthening criminal law deterrence,” Cohen wrote.

Some unique laws include New Jersey’s 2023 Health Care Heroes Violence Prevention Act, signed into law in May 2023, which made it a crime to deliberately threaten healthcare workers, including those who are regulated by the state dental board, or volunteers. Those who break the law may be found guilty of a “a disorderly person offense” and face punishment of up to six months in jail plus a $1,000 fine, according to the viewpoint.

Additionally, some states, like Georgia, have passed laws that allow healthcare facilities to create special police forces, while Colorado passed a law that prohibits a person from leaking a healthcare professional’s private data. However, this law only covers certain healthcare workers.

“[Nevertheless,] state legislative actions remain critical to addressing the crisis facing health care professionals, especially considering the lack of congressional action,” Cohen et al wrote.

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