House lawmakers Friday voted down stiffer penalties for serious assaults against health workers, reasoning that longer prison sentences would do little to deter would-be attackers.

Opponents of the legislation questioned whether the state should single out doctors, nurses and medics for special protection. They also doubted tougher prison sentences were necessary to safeguard health workers.

“These are valuable people in our community. They do a great service,” said Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper. “But this bill does not make them any safer.”

Senate File 114 would have made aggravated assault against health care providers punishable by a maximum of 12 years in prison. Normally, such assaults carry maximum prison terms of a decade.

Supporters of the legislation maintained health workers, like police officers and firefighters, deserved additional protection. During earlier testimony, several providers described being attacked by patients while on the job. One medic said he was intentionally splattered with blood by a person who claimed to have hepatitis C.

The bill had cleared the Senate and two House votes before finally being defeated by a tally of 34-24. Critics of the legislation, including Rep. Bunky Loucks, worried it would spawn other bills designed to carve out protection for certain classes of people.

“I don’t think we want special legislation to protect different groups of occupations,” the Casper Republican said.

The legislation found support from Rep. Norine Kasperik, a former nurse who represents Campbell County. The Republican representative said nurses and doctors focus on their patients, not on who might be attempting to harm them.

“Think about these people, what they do for you and your loved ones every day,” she said.

The bill, sponsored by retired nurse and state Sen. Leslie Nutting, R-Cheyenne, had been through several revisions. In its original form, the legislation called for one-year sentences. Lawmakers later decided that it should focus solely on aggravated assaults, which carry longer prison terms.

Contact Joshua Wolfson at 307-266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@trib.com. Visit http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/wolfjammies to read his blog. Follow him on Twitter @joshwolfson.

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