State bill would waive hospital fees for domestic violence victims

Editor’s note: This article discusses domestic violence. Those needing resources for help with domestic violence may contact Advocates of Routt County at 970-879-2034 or Routt County law enforcement at 970-879-1144.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A bill introduced in the Colorado Legislature would provide more autonomy and choice for victims of domestic violence, particularly those who are strangled by their abusers.

The bill, titled “Assistance For Victims Of Strangulation,” would ensure victims who seek hospital care after their abuse would not be billed for such care and would not be required to report their abuse to law enforcement.

“We definitely want people to seek help after they’ve been strangled, because they could have medical complications days or even a week after being strangled,” said Chelsie Holmes, victim advocate with Advocates of Routt County. “It’s really a scary thing, so anything we can do to encourage people to be examined after being strangled.”

Holmes, who testified to the House Judiciary Committee in support of the bill, said strangulation is one of the most common forms of domestic violence and is particularly concerning because it shows an abuser is capable of killing their victim. Victims can also suffer lethal damage days after the abuse, which is why Holmes said it is so important for strangulation victims to seek medical care.

Advocates and medical workers said victims may feel intimidated to seek that care, which is why a bill eliminating costs for victims is so important.

“It’s not an easy thing to do; it’s not easy to show up at the hospital and ask for help and talk about what happened,” said Elyse Diewald, forensic nurse examiner/program coordinator with UCHealth Northern Region. “When we have these patients come to the hospital, we’re able to provide them with medical care, provide them with resources, help communicate with police.”

Because Routt County is more affluent than many other Colorado counties, Holmes said a problem Advocates often sees is victims who may have been able to afford a medical bill, but their abusers either control their bank accounts, or they still share a home address, and an abuser could see a medical bill in the mail, further angering them.

“One piece of domestic violence that we see really often is abusers taking control of family finances and restricting a survivor’s access to money,” Holmes said. “If you don’t have money, or you don’t have your insurance cards, it’s difficult to make decisions about whether or not to go to the hospital.”

The bill also would give victims a choice about whether they want to report their abuse to law enforcement, which Holmes said is important because many victims may not be ready to report right after the abuse occurs but could choose to do so down the road.

“Evidence collection is time sensitive, but reporting can be done later,” Holmes said. “A lot of times, when people first get an exam, they may not be in a place where they want to make a decision about whether or not to contact law enforcement.”

Diewald said domestic violence abusers take power away from their victims, and any way to give victims their power back will help them gain closure.

“If they don’t want to do anything after reporting, it still is able to restore power to the patient and provide them with the appropriate medical care in a compassionate manner and understand what’s out there,” Diewald said.

Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat representing Routt and Eagle counties in the state legislature, sits on the Judiciary Committee and spoke to the importance of the legislation giving victims more options and autonomy.

“Strangulation is a common means of domestic violence, and it’s particularly troubling and difficult because strangulation can happen often without any physical sign of injury, at least in the immediate term,” Roberts said.

In addition to serving in the legislature, Roberts also works as an assistant district attorney in the Eagle County District Attorney’s Office and said domestic violence cases can be hard to investigate, which is why victims obtaining medical reports is extremely important, even if they do not wish to report to law enforcement right away.

“This will definitely encourage more victims to report than currently do,” Roberts said.

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