Legislature advances bill that aims to stem violence against hospital workers

A bipartisan proposal to step up penalties for assaulting hospital workers has advanced in the Legislature despite opposition from advocates for people with disabilities.

House Bill 4088 would make it a felony to knowingly and intentionally attack a hospital worker, create a pot of money to help hospitals adopt prevention measures and require hospital signage about the law. The proposal follows several high-profile attacks against hospital staff in recent years, including the fatal shooting of a security guard inside Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in northwest Portland in mid-July.

Attacks on hospital staff, especially those who care directly for patients, are widespread, health care workers told the House Committee on Judiciary at a public hearing last week.They included one of the main sponsors of the bill, Rep. Travis Nelson, D-Portland and a nurse for 20 years. 

“During my time at the bedside, I’ve been hit, spit on and punched too many times to count,” Nelson said.

According to a 2022 survey from the Oregon Nurses Association, 70% of emergency department nurses reported being assaulted on the job and 30% said they had been assaulted up to three times in the past year. And many attacks go unreported, experts say.

“This issue concerns real people who dedicate their lives to caring for others yet continue to face risks of harm in the workplace,” Nelson said. “It’s time we stand up for them.”

Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, has championed bills aimed at preventing violence against health care workers for several years, and is also a driving force behind this one. She said in testimony her campaign has been spurred by stories of workplace violence recounted by her sister, a nurse at Salem Hospital for 20 years.

“I was shocked at the stories I heard that I’ve compiled over the years of working this bill,” she said. “This should not be their reality.”

Under the bill, someone found guilty of intentionally attacking a hospital worker could face a class C felony, which carries up to five years in prison and a $125,000 fine. Hospitals would be required to post signs in five languages about the law and report incidents to the Department of Consumer and Business Services. Hospitals also would be prohibited from forcing employees to wear identification badges with their last names on them and required to allow union representatives to participate in worker safety meetings and committees, something that Nelson said was a problem.

The funding – which has not been set – would be aimed at helping rural and critical access hospitals that have emergency services and fewer than 26 beds, Nelson said. They could use the money to install metal detectors, train staff and add other protective measures. The bill would exclude mental health care facilities, where about half of hospital attacks take place, according to a 2008 study. That means the Oregon State Hospital would be excluded.

“I strongly believe that House Bill 4088 adopts a comprehensive approach to addressing workplace violence, a step that is long overdue,” Nelson said. “This is the step Oregon needs to safeguard our health care workers and by extension our entire community.”

The House Committee on Judiciary approved the proposal with a 9-1 vote in favor, sending it to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, which determines budgetary decisions.

Number of organizations oppose

Despite the strong bipartisan support, not everyone agrees the bill is the right approach. Several lawyers and advocates for people with disabilities who testified against the proposal said it would harm their clients. Among them was Beth Brownhill, managing attorney for Disability Rights Oregon.

“Enhancing the assault crime to a felony would have a disparate impact on people with disabilities,” Brownhill testified. 

She said it would create a barrier to accessing health care, discourage hospital administrators from training staff to work with people with disabilities and criminalize having a disability. 

“Many people with disabilities don’t access medical care until it’s an emergency or crisis,” Brownhill said. “This can create a Catch 22. Lack of care culminates in a crisis and being in a crisis complicates their much-needed care. Caregivers for individuals with disabilities will be less likely to help them seek care if they might face a felony for behavior that manifests from a crisis.”

Mae Lee Browning, legislative director for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, also testified against the bill.

“Our state mental health system is broken,” Browning said. “Sadly, the criminal justice system is routinely used as a substitute. Turning mentally ill folks into felons will only exacerbate the problem. It will also make them ineligible for subsidized housing and some other government benefits that they need.” 

Submitted testimony on the bill is split, with 33 in favor and 27 against. The ACLU of Oregon, Oregon Developmental Disabilities Coalition and National Council on Severe Autism oppose it while the Oregon Nurses Association, Hospital Association of Oregon, Oregon District Attorneys Association, Oregon Medical Association, Service Employees International Union Oregon State Council and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75 are in favor.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

STORY TIP OR IDEA? Send an email to Salem Reporter’s news team: [email protected].