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Idaho rejects KMC bid for protections for health care workers

Mon., Feb. 25, 2013, 2:46 p.m.

BOISE – Kootenai Medical Center says its workers are being violently assaulted more frequently - to the point that it wants to make any attack on a health care worker in Idaho a felony.

“We’ve seen an increasing number of individuals who come in through the emergency room who are exhibiting very violent behavior,” David Lehman, lobbyist for the Coeur d’Alene hospital, told the House Judiciary Committee on Monday. Many are seeking prescription drugs, he said.

But legislation to make any assault or battery against an Idaho health care worker a felony carrying a 25-year prison term was rejected on a tied vote by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday.

“There are tools on the books – I’m not convinced they’re being used,” said Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise.

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I’m concerned about the broad brush here.”

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s sponsor, was disappointed. “I guess we’ll try and bring it back again next year,” he said.

Under current law, such attacks are misdemeanors carrying up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. But Luker noted that the worst attacks could be charged as aggravated assaults, which are felonies with up to five years in prison.

Said Luker, “At some point we need to use the tools we have first.”

The bill initially won the committee’s approval on a 9-7 vote, but then Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, changed his vote from yes to no, killing the bill on an 8-8 tie.

Malek told the committee, “In just the past few months, at Kootenai Medical Center in my district, an NICU employee was lifted and thrown to the ground, a … nurse’s aide was kicked in the chest, a security guard was kicked in the groin, a mental health specialist was threatened with a fire extinguisher. Providers and staff have been spit on, bitten and threatened with fists and knives. These examples represent just a small fraction of the incidents in Idaho over the past year.”

Malek said health care workers are obligated to treat everyone, so they’re vulnerable to violent patients. His bill was backed by the Idaho Hospital Association, the Idaho Medical Association and Nurse Leaders of Idaho. In fact, everyone who testified on the bill at the hearing Monday was in favor of it.

Steve Millard, president of the Idaho Hospital Association, told the committee he heard about a physician who delivered bad news to a family, “and he was punched in the face. … Why should a health care worker be subject to that… kind of abuse?”

Luker asked if the person in that incident was charged, and Millard said no. “The physician who was punched in the nose, he was asked why he didn’t write it up. He said, ‘Nothing will happen anyway if I do,’ so he just lives with it,” Millard said.

Lehman said at Kootenai Medical Center, 90 percent of assaults on workers are reported to police, but the Coeur d’Alene hospital doesn’t track how many result in charges or convictions.

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