Investigations

A Democratic lawmaker has filed two pieces of legislation hoping to increase access to sexual assault nurse examiners in Kentucky. 

Sexual assault nurse examiners, or SANEs, are specially trained to conduct rape kit exams and provide medical care after a sexual assault.  

A KyCIR investigation found that the majority of Kentucky hospitals do not employ a SANE. Since there is little statewide data available, KyCIR called every hospital or hospital chain in the state, and sent a survey to every certified SANE. 

The investigation also found some hospitals turn rape victims away if they don’t have a SANE to conduct the rape kit exam, in violation of Kentucky law. 

That story inspired Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson, a Democrat from Lexington, to file a bill this week that would require hospitals to have a SANE on-duty at all times. She acknowledged that there was little chance the bill would gain traction. 

“I understand that hospitals are in a tough position, especially those out in our rural communities that are struggling to keep their doors open,” she said. “I understand that does place a financial burden on them.”

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

But Stevenson hopes the bill will start a much needed discussion, and amplify another piece of legislation she has filed: a joint resolution requiring hospitals and several professional organizations to file annual reports that quantify access to SANEs statewide. 

“Once we start really doing a deep dive on the numbers, it will be evident what steps we need to take,” she said. 

A joint resolution carries the force of law, although it does not become part of state statute as a bill would. 

The joint resolution would require hospitals and agencies to annually report data to the Interim Joint Committee on Health, Welfare and Family Services. The data would become an annual report with recommendations to improve systemic response. 

Under the joint resolution, hospitals would have to report how often they conduct sexual assault exams and how many SANEs they employ, as well as what support they offer to nurses that want to become certified. 

It would also gather data from the Kentucky Board of Nursing and the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, as well as any complaints received by the Attorney General’s Office of Victim Advocacy. 

Stevenson said this data would likely show where the gaps in the system are, and indicate how future legislation could address those issues. 

This is the latest in a years-long attempt to improve access to sexual assault services in Kentucky. After a state audit identified a backlog of more than 3,000 rape kits, Kentucky passed the 2016 Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence (SAFE) Act, which created new requirements for law enforcement, the state crime lab, hospitals and rape crisis centers to ensure rape kits were being processed in a timely manner. 

It also created the designation of “SANE-Ready Hospitals,” which have a SANE available 24/7. Currently, only 11 of nearly 100 hospitals in the state are certified. 

Stevenson said she hopes gathering data will show where resources are lacking — and where others can be redistributed. 

“What I would ultimately love to see…is pockets of SANE nurses around the state,” she said, “so that when someone presents with an issue, there’s somebody that can be called and can reach that hospital pretty quickly.” 

University of Louisville Hospital has been working on developing a system like that in Louisville, where SANEs could respond to any area hospital. 

The Kentucky Hospital Association is also working on something similar, according to president Nancy Galvagni. She said her organization is working to have SANE-ready hospitals provide trained nurses “when possible” to perform the exams at hospitals that do not have a SANE on staff. 

Galvagni did not respond to follow-up questions about the joint resolution requirements, but said that mandating a SANE in every hospital “is not realistic.” 

Eleanor Klibanoff covered Rust Belt decline and revival in Pennsylvania. She also worked for NPR and attended the George Washington University.