Bill Expanding Concussion Release Law Faces Resistance in House

Senate Bill 1547 passed the Senate unanimously despite a lengthy list of opponents, including the Oregon Medical Association. It adds a training regimen for non-physicians if they wish to be authorized to approve a youth athlete to return to play after a head injury.

A proposed change to the law allowing youth athletes to be returned to play after a concussion passed the House Health Committee on Friday after a heated debate in the committee on Wednesday that delayed the vote.

Senate Bill 1547 would allow properly trained chiropractors, naturopaths, physical therapists, occupational therapists and athletic trainers to clear an athlete for play after a head injury.

Two Republicans, Rep. Cedric Hayden of Cottage Grove and Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend, submitted an amendment to remove athletic trainers from the bill, but they could not get their fellow Republicans on the committee to join them and the amendment failed 2 to 9. They subsequently opposed the bill, which passed 9 to 2.

Existing law allows physicians, nurse practitioners, psychologists and physician assistants to return a child to play without any prescribed training. Under SB 1547, all but physicians would need to undergo the same training course from Oregon Health & Science University as the newly eligible practitioners.

Rep. Alyssa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, said that she supported athletic trainers because they were often the most knowledgeable of a player’s condition. She did not think medical doctors and osteopathic physicians should be exempt from the training course.

Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, drafted the bill from a work group that had been meeting since 2015 and had failed to reach an adequate consensus in two previous sessions. But this year, it sailed through the Senate with only minor hiccups and it passed unanimously in the full Senate on Monday.

Wilsonville chiropractor Lora Lajoie testified that she had been clearing athletes for play until 2015 -- when a change in the law restricted her profession. “It was like being a woman losing the right to vote after 100 years of having it,” she said.

Oregon was one of the first two states to pass the landmark Max’s Law, named after a Waldport High School football player who was left disabled after a second concussion and now lives in a group home. The law requires athletes to be removed from play if they appear to have a concussion and requires a medical professional to clear students before they can return to play, often after a wait of several days.

Backers of SB 1547 argue that it will improve Max’s Law by requiring most health professionals to be trained in concussion treatment with the OHSU course. Current law allows anybody with the right license to sign off on the health of an injured athlete, even theoretically a psychologist who might be primarily versed in talk therapy.

However, as Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, a retired psychologist, noted, it would be unethical for an unskilled professional to clear an athlete to play, and they could be subject to penalties from their board if they did.

There has been no unanimity among lobbyists, however, and the Oregon Medical Association, the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association and the Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons of Oregon all oppose the bill.

Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon, zeroed his opposition to the inclusion of athletic trainers, arguing that they have less education than other providers and are often school employees, making them more vulnerable to pressure from coaches to put star players back on the field before they’re ready.

“To signal out athletic trainers is misleading,” said Sam Johnson, the president of the Oregon Athletic Trainers Society, who said not all trainers are employees of their athletic organization and they are not the only healthcare providers who might be employed by schools. “They’re allowed to determine if an athlete has a concussion. They’re allowed to return a nonconcussed student to play.”

Johnson conceded that nothing requires athletic trainers to have malpractice insurance, but the prudent ones do if they’re working as independent contractors, unlike freelancing physicians, who may be insured by their day jobs and not for volunteer work they do with sports teams.

The Oregon School Board Association, which failed in the Senate to get the bill amended, wanted immunity if a student is returned too early and suffers a more severe injury.

“We’re going to be liable,” said Lori Sattenspiel, the school boards’ legislative director. “We’ll get sued over this.”

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, disputed her remarks, noting the purpose of SB 1547 was to add training requirements for most healthcare professionals when they return athletes to play, ensuring they are more knowledgeable than what existing law allows. The liability would also protect student athletes from school politics that might pressure athletic trainers to return them to play early, as in Buehler’s scenario.

“There’s nothing in this that forces a school district to hire someone who is not qualified,” Greenlick said. “If you’re making stupid decisions, you should be liable.”

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].