Health worker protection bill fails

Measure dies in Senate; Malek, Nonini trade barbs

BOISE – Coeur d’Alene Rep. Luke Malek’s bill to make attacking a health care worker a felony – a measure requested in part by Kootenai Medical Center, which says violent attacks there are increasing – was killed in the Senate Thursday after the lieutenant governor broke a rare tie vote.

Malek said, “I’m disappointed that it was defeated this year, but confident that once we iron out the misconceptions voiced in the floor debate, we will be successful next year.”

Coeur d’Alene Sen. Bob Nonini decried the measure as too harsh.

A former Kootenai County deputy prosecutor, Malek also said Nonini was mistaken when he told the Senate the bill would make it a felony to assault a health care worker with words. “There is no such thing as verbal assault,” Malek said, pointing to Idaho state law provisions that require not only a verbal threat of violence, but also that such a threat be accompanied by another act that gives the victim “a well-founded fear … that such violence is imminent.”

Nonini, who had earlier sent an email to a KMC official questioning Malek’s ethics in sponsoring the bill, declined to comment.

On Thursday morning, Nonini sent an email to Julie Hoerner, director of trauma and emergency services at KMC, who had contacted him asking him to back the bill.

“It sure appears as a conflict that Luke Malek did not disclose that he was doing this as a favor to his father and KMC,” Nonini wrote. “Young Luke needs to understand that we expect more transparency in government that Luke is willing to concede.”

Both of Malek’s parents are doctors; his dad is an emergency room physician and his mom is in family practice. Both have practiced in Coeur d’Alene for more than 20 years.

Malek, 31, said he first heard about the issue at an Idaho Medical Association legislative meeting in Coeur d’Alene, and there’s no conflict between his father’s profession and his sponsorship of the bill.

Malek said of Nonini, a fellow Republican, “This isn’t the first time he’s impugned my character.”

Malek said as a lawyer, he’s especially sensitive to allegations of ethics violations. “You’ve got to get out ahead of ethics complaints,” he said. “An accusation can sometimes be as damaging as an actual violation.”

He added, “I think what we are seeing in Bob’s case is mostly frustration with an inability, once again, to create any sort of coherent legislative agenda on his own behalf. That would be about the only explanation for his inability to correctly construe the plain meaning of rules, which he should, by now, be very familiar with.”

All Idaho lawmakers went through mandatory ethics training this year, including sessions on the definition of a conflict of interest. The Idaho attorney general’s Ethics in Government Manual defines a conflict of interest as an official action by a public official that provides a “private pecuniary benefit” to the official or a member of his or her household.

HB 292 was Malek’s second try at a felony bill for assault or battery on health care workers. His first, which added health care workers to an existing felony law regarding assaults on police officers, social workers, emergency medical services workers and an array of others, was killed on a tie vote in the House Judiciary Committee, after members expressed concerns about that law’s maximum 25-year prison term.

The new version, which set a five-year maximum prison term and added protections against prosecution for mentally ill patients, won unanimous support from that committee and passed the House last week. It was backed by the Idaho Hospital Association, the Idaho Medical Association, nursing groups and health care providers from around the state.

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