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Bill to protect health care workers could put violent patients in prison

BOISE – In her 28 years as a nurse, Julie Hoerner has been punched, kicked, spit on and cursed at by the people who come to emergency rooms for her help.

Now, a remedy may be in sight after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted Friday to advance a bill that would make such attacks on health care workers felonies punishable by up to three years in prison. It’s now bound for debate on the Senate floor.

Hoerner, director of emergency and trauma services at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, came to Boise to support the legislation. But despite her decades spent dodging fists and feet, Hoerner told the Senate Judiciary Committee Friday that she was not there for herself.

“I’m here to speak for the other people who are on the front lines every day,” she said. “They come to work to care for people, and they’re putting themselves at risk of being harmed physically and emotionally.”

One patient, who knew she had an infectious blood disease, spit on and scratched an ER nurse last week. Another threatened to kill a physician if he was not prescribed narcotics.

Currently, most assaults on hospital workers fall under the category of misdemeanor battery, usually garnering offenders only a handful of days in jail.

But that could change, now that the committee has elected to send it forward to debate on the Senate floor. A similar bill died there last year in a 17-17 tie after clearing the House.

But Emily McClure of the Idaho Medical Association is confident that won’t happen again.

She’s tweaked the bill to eliminate some of the lawmaker concerns that stymied it last year, lowering time behind bars from a maximum of five years to a maximum of three.

This year’s bill also creates a new statute rather than lumping health care workers into the same protected class as EMTs and police officers.

“The goal is not to fill prisons, but to provide health care workers, the courts and prosecutors with a tool to deter this violence,” McClure said. “This will be particularly meaningful in the case of repeat offenders, who are simply not being held accountable under existing law.”

Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, said she was skeptical the new law would act as a deterrent against battery.

“I just can’t imagine those patients who are under the duress, they are really going to be thinking about whether this is a felony or not,” said Nuxoll, who voted against the bill.

But McClure said the current measure isn’t doing enough to protect hospital employees.