Lawmakers Seek Improved Healthcare Worker Safety in Wake of Nurse Killing

State Capitol, Hartford, CT (CT Examiner)


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HARTFORD — The killing last year of Joyce Grayson, a visiting nurse, has sparked legislation aimed at providing a safer working environment for health care professionals in Connecticut, and for one lawmaker, the bill is personal. 

“Every nice thing you hear about Joyce is true. Joyce was fantastic. Patients loved Joyce and she loved them back. Joyce had a great way of communicating with patients and making them feel welcome and accepted,” said State Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, a longtime nurse who knew Grayson for 30 years.

Grayson, who worked for Elara Caring, was found dead in a patient’s Willimantic home in October. Police have named her mental health patient and convicted sex offender, Michael Reese, as a suspect in the killing, though no charges have been filed. 

Tercyak, who had worked with Grayson at the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Capital Region Mental Health Center, said Grayson knew the dangers of the job, but loved helping people and was devoted to her profession.

“She was as knowledgeable as anybody who was ever going to be sent into someone’s home,” he said. “She was as knowledgeable about how things could go bad as anyone.”

On Monday, the Public Health Committee held a public hearing on the bill. If passed and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont, the measure would require home health care agencies to obtain each client’s psychiatric history, as well as any history of violence, substance abuse and domestic abuse. Additionally, each agency would be mandated to provide staff with safety training and a wearable GPS that allows staff to contact local police by pressing a button, among other provisions.

The bill also calls for developing a statewide registry of data for Parkinson’s disease and providing specialized programs for the treatment of recently diagnosed schizophrenia disorders.

Several nurses and home health care professionals submitted testimony for the hearing, in which they described a working environment that was often toxic and unsafe.

“Violence against healthcare workers has increased exponentially since the COVID pandemic,” registered nurse Seema Pillai, of Fairfield, wrote. “A 2022 survey found that nearly half the nurses reported an increase in workplace violence, a 119 percent increase since March 2021. … Violence against healthcare workers doesn’t just impact providers, but is also detrimental to patient safety. Being a healthcare provider is stressful enough given the acuity and complexity of patient care. In this environment, when we have to deal with angry, rude and hostile clientele, it creates anxiety, causes distraction and leads to errors, thereby impacting patient safety and quality of care.”

Jeanne Wehling, a registered nurse and member of the Lawrence & Memorial Federation of Registered Nurses, wrote, “The death of a visiting nurse, Joyce Grayson, has been endured by all of Connecticut’s residents. Sadly, it is with Joyce’s passing that has provoked many to openly discuss violence in healthcare. Nursing is one of the top trusted professions, yet so at risk for violence.”

State Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London, vice chair of the Public Health Committee, has also been a home care nurse for about 25 years.

“I’ve been saying all along that we are all alone out there,” Marx told CT Examiner. “The whole world is just blown away that a woman was in a house and this happened to her with no kind of safety measures.”

Marx said there is no magic bullet that can make home health care fully safe, but that the Senate bill’s provisions are long overdue and will make a huge impact in providing comfort to those in the field and their families.

She also said escorts should be provided to workers on occasions where a client might be deemed dangerous. According to Marx, the escorts and GPS devices would cost about $3 million.

“It’s the cost of doing business,” she said.

State Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditria, R-Seymour, had concerns with a section of the bill related to reimbursement fees for home health care agencies, but overall believed “there is a lot of good stuff in this bill that I’d like to see passed.” 

The lawmaker also expressed frustration that Reese was out on the street in the first place.

“I truly believe that violent people or sexual offenders should finish their entire prison sentence before they are released back into the community or transferred under the supervision of a halfway house or men’s mental health facility,” Klarides-Ditria said. “And if that had happened, possibly, it could have saved Joyce’s life. … We need to hold offenders accountable for their actions. It’s not just a health care issue, but it’s a public safety issue.”

Tracy Wodatch, president and CEO of the Wallingford-based Connecticut Association for Healthcare at Home, told CT Examiner that most home health care workers feel safe, but “there are certain situations that they face that they may feel uncomfortable.”

Wodatch said providing workers with the information they need, such as whether a client is dangerous or has weapons in their home, is essential.

“We are strong proponents for having that information so that we can make informed decisions about the risk level,” she said. “But we also have to have transparency from our referral sources too. We get our referrals from hospitals, doctor’s offices and from nursing homes, wherever they are, and we need the transparency of information from them.”

Wodatch estimated there are 22,000 home health care workers in the state, and said Grayson’s death “impacted our industry hugely and shouldn’t have happened.”

State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a physician and co-chair of the Public Health Committee, said, “Joyce Grayson’s memory is critical for this legislation. …. She dedicated her life to helping others; through this bill, her efforts will allow for the safety of her fellow workers in Connecticut.”

Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950