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After much debate, House passes felony bill for patients who batter health care providers

Legislation to impose felony penalties on patients who batter medical workers prompted extended debate in the House today before it finally passed, 42-26; an earlier version of the bill passed the House last year, but died on a tied vote in the Senate. This year’s version, SB 1351, would impose a three-year prison term for violations; last year’s bill had five years. Rep. Cindy Agidius, R-Moscow, said she worried that patients may be people of diminished mental capacity, and putting felonies on their record could cause them permanent harm. Rep. Ilana Rubel D-Boise, said, “I am very nervous about potentially putting a three-year penalty on somebody who maybe in a severely diminished state, grabs a doctor’s arm.” Rubel, a lawyer, noted that battery merely requires unwanted touching, not injury.

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, spoke out in favor of the bill. “The testimony in committee was very compelling,” she told the House. “The law as it is written is not protecting people. … Their charge is to heal.” Doctors and nurses are required to treat people, backers of the bill said, and have little protection when those people turn on them violently. Said Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, “Our nurses are on the front line, our doctors are on the front line. … The nurses aren’t allowed to walk away.”

Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, said, “If we batter a pregnant woman it’s only a misdemeanor. If we batter a child it’s only a misdemeanor. … I can’t see that it makes sense to elevate one group of individuals over another.”

Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, a lawyer, said there are some problems and inconsistencies with Idaho’s battery statute, but the current law isn’t working for health care providers. Patients who attack providers can’t be charged with aggravated battery unless they cause serious and permanent bodily harm, he said. That’s why the bill proposes a felony penalty for a simple battery in those cases.

“A health care worker is three times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in the workplace than any other sector,” said Rep. Pat McDonald, R-Boise. “I think we do have a problem here.” His co-sponsor, Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, a lawyer, said, “There are a large number … of people being abused in the work environment, not by people who are emotionally distressed, but by people who are going in there and just being violent.” Battery does require intent, he noted. “They can’t walk away from the situation. They have to provide care.” The bill now goes to the governor's desk.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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