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November 2, 2023

Murder of visiting nurse ignites demands for stronger home care protections

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Connecticut State Senator Martha Marx addresses the press after discussing the safety of visiting nurses at the Legislative Office Building on November 1, 2023.

Legislators and health care workers gathered at the state capitol on Wednesday to advocate for increased health care workplace safety measures following the murder of a visiting nurse in Willimantic.

The calls for action focused particularly on home settings, where many health care workers are behind closed doors with patients and vulnerable to dangerous conditions, including physical and verbal abuse. 

“None of us are surprised,” said Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London, a visiting nurse and union president of AFT Local 5119 Southeastern Connecticut for registered nurses and home aides. “We have been trying to get safer protocols in our homes for decades.”

Speakers identified Joyce Grayson as the victim. According to her obituary, Grayson worked with her current employer, Elara Caring, for over 10 years, and with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Service for 26 years. Grayson also served as a foster parent for more than 20 years.

Media outlets in Connecticut have reported that Grayson was making a home visit to Michael Reese, 38, a resident at a halfway house for convicted sex offenders in Willimantic the morning she was killed. Her body was found in the basement of the home by police after her failure to show up for subsequent appointments triggered a wellness check.

Police apprehended Reese later that day near the home and arrested him on unrelated charges — violation of probation, possession of drug paraphernalia, and sixth degree larceny, according to a story by Hearst CT. Reese was living at the home where Grayson was found after he was released on probation for a first-degree sexual assault conviction, among others, Hearst reported.

Connecticut State Police have not identified a suspect or confirmed the identity of the victim, according to a spokesperson.

“State Police has not identified a suspect or victim in this case. All agencies involved in the Willimantic homicide investigation will not provide further information regarding this investigation,” stated a spokesperson in emailed comments. 

Several health care workers who spoke Wednesday noted that protections specifically focused on home settings are severely lacking, which endangers the workforce, largely made up of women, and, specifically, women of color. 

During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed a law to address rising violence against health care workers but it focused specifically on health care facilities, not home settings. The measure, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, will launch a public campaign about abuse of health care workers and promote a state-run security grant program for health care facilities.

Sen. President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said he’d like to see legislation passed this session that can guarantee safety of workers in homes as demand for their services increases.

“More and more care is going to be provided in a home setting, which is generally a good thing,” said Looney. “But if that is true, we need to make sure that the people who are providing that care are safe.” 

The number of home health and personal care aides in Connecticut nearly doubled to 38,000 between 2011 and 2021. Despite the growth, the industry remains largely unregulated, leaving both workers and patients at risk.

In recent years, reductions in Medicaid reimbursement rates have also rolled back protections for home health workers, explained Tracy Wodatch, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association for Healthcare at Home.

In 2016, Wodatch said, the reimbursement rate for a behavioral health visit was cut by 15%. The following year, a state Medicaid “add-on rate” that funded escorts in high-risk situations was eliminated.

“That add-on rate was specific for high risk patients,” said Wodatch. “We need to bring that back.”

Wodatch said she also used to call for a police escort when going into situations she deemed dangerous, but, with staffing cuts, cops no longer have the time or resources to provide those services.

Marx added that most home health workers don’t even have an established avenue for reporting incidents with patients and their family members. And, oftentimes, workers hesitate to report feeling uncomfortable with specific clients for fear of being perceived as high maintenance.

“We need to be able to go back to the office and say, ‘This patient spit on me, this patient watched pornography during the visits.’ And I’m not kidding — it happens a lot,” said Marx.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz called Grayson’s murder a “wake-up call to protect our health care workers, our nurses, our home health aides” and legislators vowed to formalize enhanced safety protections in the upcoming session. 

“We will pass legislation and we will always have this visiting nurse in our hearts,” said Marx.

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