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 — was killed in the Senate today after the lieutenant governor broke a rare tie vote.
“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,” Malek said.
A former Kootenai County deputy prosecutor, Malek also said Sen. Bob Nonini, of Coeur d’Alene, was mistaken when he told the Senate the bill would make it a felony to just 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 Kootenai Medical Center official questioning Malek’s ethics for sponsoring the bill, declined to comment.
“I told you ‘no comment,’ and let’s leave it at that,” Nonini said after the vote, hurrying from the Senate chamber.
This morning, Nonini sent an email to Julie Hoerner, director of trauma and emergency services at KMC, who had contacted him asking him to support the bill. He wrote, “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. 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, “This isn’t the first time he’s impugned my character. He makes a habit out of telling people to follow the money if he disagrees with whatever decision I’m making.”
Malek said that 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, judges 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.
The bill won support from the Idaho Hospital Association, the Idaho Medical Association, nursing groups and others. The pediatric medical director for St. Luke’s health system in Southern Idaho, Dr. Mark Urban, told a Senate committee that when he trained in Arizona, where it was a felony to attack a health care worker, “They know not to hit the doctor or nurse.” Since coming to Idaho, Urban said, he’s been assaulted twice.
“We are the front line,” Urban told the senators. “We are required by federal law to provide a medical screening exam … to any patient that is brought to the hospital.”
In Thursday’s debate Nonini said, “I think this legislation goes a bit far,” saying it could imprison someone for mere words. “They’re going to be subject to five years in the state penitentiary?” he asked. “I would hope that the sponsors could work on this over the interim … come back with something a little tighter, maybe not so harsh.”
Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, also argued against the bill. “What we do know is that there is a problem with assault and battery on health care workers.” But, he said, “If we were enforcing the laws we currently have, we would see a deterrent effect without this bill. … It’s horrible for someone to assault a health care worker. It’s just as horrible to assault a cashier in a grocery store, or somebody at the park, or any other member of society. … We keep increasing the penalties, not enforcing the ones we already have.”
Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said, “We are talking about individuals that are different than Joe Citizen. … This is not the cashier in the grocery store that has the sign in the front that says, ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service.’ They have to provide medical care … and in doing so they put themselves into close proximity to those people.”
Malek said he welcomes a chance to work more on HB 292 and make sure senators are informed about the issues behind it, just as he reworked the earlier version of the bill; it was the freshman lawmaker’s first bill.
Said Malek, “It’s another opportunity to make something that I think is great better. I think a lot of that is just explaining things, like the ‘verbal assault.’ ”
Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who cast his first tie-breaking vote of the year against this year’s bill, said he was persuaded by the Senate debate to oppose the measure, particularly by comments from Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa. “We’d have more people going into the penal system,” Little said. “We’re always saying we’ve got too many people incarcerated.”
He added, “I have to think that next year, Luke will probably bring that bill back.”