Hospital employee felony assault bill fell victim to short session

With broad support from healthcare workers and executives, a bill toughening penalties for assaults on hospital workers appeared to cross the finish line last week.

But despite a bipartisan vote of 53 to 7 in the House, the bill stalled and died in the Senate.

Now fans vow to try again.

Amid a flurry of activity in the closing days of the short session, House Bill 4142 did not move from the office of Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. Courtney did not send the bill to committee, and it died without action.

Supporters included the Oregon Hospital & Health Systems Association, Oregon Nurses Association, and providers such as PeaceHealth, Salem Health, Providence Health & Services, Samaritan Health Services. Healthcare workers told stories of their workplace assaults.

“I received kicks, punches, scratches, bites; I had urine thrown on me. I’ve been the victim of unwanted sexual advances,” testified ER nurse Ola Bachofner, also the sister of Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, one of the bill’s main sponsors. “And I’m one of the lucky ones.”

But the bill has also faced stiff opposition from advocates who said it would increase the criminalization of mental illness. The increased criminal penalty would not deter someone “who is not in control of their … actions”, said disability lawyer KC Lewis. Oregon Rights. “And a longer time spent in prison or in prison or in the public hospital will only make their underlying problems worse.”

The bill would have made it a crime to “intentionally or knowingly” cause “physical injury to a person working in a hospital while the worker is performing official duties”. Currently, it is a Class A misdemeanor to assault or injure a hospital employee, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $125,000 fine. The bill would have made it a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $125,000 fine.

Thirty-four other states, including California and Washington, have similar laws in place.

The two main sponsors of the bill were Reps. Boshart Davis and Sheri Schouten, D-Beaverton. 22 other lawmakers from both parties have signed on as regular sponsors. Schouten said the bill “died an unexpected death” in the Senate.

“He had never left the president’s office,” Schouten said in an interview. “So someone over there – and I have no idea who – decided they hated this bill and weren’t even going to give it a committee hearing.”

The bill passed the House on March 1, three days before the end of the session. In short sessions, bills move quickly.

“He would have had time to move,” Schouten said.

Supporters tried to move quickly as the end of the session loomed.

As soon as the bill passed, Schouten and about two dozen House lawmakers sent a letter urging Courtney to give the bill a hearing.

Schouten said they never heard back.

Senate Parallel Battle

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans grew restless as the bill lay on Courtney’s desk.

They made a final procedural move on March 4 — the last day of the session — to remove the bill from Courtney’s desk so it could get a vote and pass. This decision failed and the bill died.

In an interview, Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, lamented the bill’s demise, saying it was time to pass it.

The bill could have gone to the Senate Rules Committee, as is permitted when there is little time for a bill to pass before the end of the session, he said.

“The idea that we can’t increase the sentence for assaulting a hospital employee is to me, quite frankly, unconscionable,” Knopp said, adding that this will be “one of the first bills” that Republicans will try to pass in the 2023 session.

Boshart Davis said she would bring the bill back. A similar measure died in the 2021 session.

“HB 4142 had overwhelming bipartisan support in the House,” Boshart Davis said in a statement. “And from several health associations, medical community and hospital workers. I will be sponsoring and bringing back this legislation, for the third time, in the long session of 2023. Our nurses and hospital workers deserve these protections.”

Courtney, who is retiring, will not be in the Senate next year. But for the short session, Courtney said, the schedule and existing concerns about the bill kept him from moving forward.

“There were a lot of mixed opinions on this bill,” Courtney said during a press briefing. “It’s the kind of bill, that – you put it in a short session, you better have done all the work and make sure it’s good to go.”

Courtney added: “Time wasn’t on our side, and I’m not out of it. It just wasn’t meant to be.

As for Senate Republicans’ efforts to remove the bill from its desk and put it to a vote, Courtney called it an “unprecedented move.”

“They tried to move the bill to the floor right from my desk,” Courtney said. “It’s a very dramatic decision. It’s smart, very smart, very strategic. But I reversed that motion. It was put to a vote and my decision stood.

Concerns persist

As Courtney noted, the bill had met with opposition.

Critics feared the legislation would unfairly charge people with mental health issues with crimes. The bill has been amended to address this concern, removing the descriptor of “recklessly” and retaining “knowingly” and “intentionally” as qualifiers.

Even so, concerns persisted in some quarters, including among physicians in the Legislative Assembly. Representative Maxine Dexter, a physician at Kaiser Permanente, cast one of the opposition votes in the House.

She tabled a three-page explanatory letter outlining a series of concerns. For example, prosecutors currently have the discretion to charge crimes after reviewing the facts of a case, wrote Dexter, D-Northwest Portland.

“Although the word ‘reckless’ was removed from the bill in an effort to avoid targeting patients with an altered mental state or mental illness, I am concerned about the court’s interpretation of ‘knowingly’ and ‘intentionally’ and I hope these specifications will be sufficient to prevent these vulnerable populations from being criminalized when needed,” Dexter wrote.

Representative Lisa Reynolds, a pediatrician, voted in favor of the bill but did so hesitantly, she wrote in her explanation of vote.

Reynolds, West Side of D-Portland, cited similar concerns as Dexter, noting that she has a seriously mentally ill brother.

“I was told he would ‘never be charged with a crime,'” Reynolds wrote. “However, I do know that this bill would increase the risk that a patient with mental illness could actually face felony charges.”

This charge, in turn, leads to incarceration, difficulty accessing programs and homelessness, Reynolds added.

However, she voted yes out of respect for her fellow healthcare workers and emergency professionals, Reynolds said in her statement. “Our doctors, nurses and emergency personnel have faced unprecedented challenges over the past two years: being on the front lines of the COVID pandemic, creating intensive care units in their emergency departments for COVID patients in hospitals already overworked and face hostility from patients who deny the science of the pandemic. They are asking for this bill and I vote yes in a House where this bill has the votes to pass. I am not particularly proud of this vote.

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or through Twitter @BenBotkin1.

Lillian L. Pena