The Oregon Legislature on Monday held a one-day marathon special session and passed a motley collection of legislation tied to the state budget and the pandemic. But lawmakers left some business unfinished, including a bill to give liability protections to health care providers during the pandemic.
The pandemic was front and center: Angry far-right protesters tried to breach the shuttered state Capitol -- closed off to the public because of COVID-19. Oregon State Police arrested two people who entered the building, and armed protesters yelled at SWAT police officers outside the Capitol entrance.
The Legislature passed a bill that extends the eviction moratorium until the end of June and provides financial relief to landlords who have shouldered losses as non-paying tenants stay in their properties. Lawmakers also passed a bill that allows cocktails and mixed drinks to be delivered to homes.
They also approved a $800 million budget bill that will let the state continue to do its COVID-19 work, such as contact tracing and outreach as well as tackle wildfire recovery efforts. That bill provides financial assistance to people who cannot pay their rent and landlords who continue to not receive rent payments.
The passed a bill that gives liability protection to schools that open during the COVID-19 crisis so they cannot be sued, provided they open safely and follow protocols. And they approved a bill that lets restaurants deliver cocktails and mixed drinks to customers in their homes temporarily during the pandemic, a move intended to aid the beleaguered restaurant industry amid the shutdown.
But lawmakers acknowledged that they had unfinished work, including a bill that would provide liability protection for health care providers during the pandemic. The bill would have protected health care providers from lawsuits related to COVID-19, such as if a person contracts the virus even though the provider follows safety protocols. The bill died in the joint committee without going to either chamber.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said a big issue that prevented the bill’s passage was that lawmakers were unable to sign off on amendments that would have clarified patient protections and put in place whistleblower safeguards for health care employees. Without those elements, Kotek said, “we could not vote for this bill.”
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said the liability protection for the medical community is a complex issue involving powerful players, from the health care industry to trial lawyers.
“Those are juggernauts,” he said. “It takes an incredible amount of work.”
One focus of dispute was whether liability and whistleblower protections should cover only professionals such as doctors and registered nurses, or extend to less skilled workers too.
In a statement, the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Care Systems expressed disappointment in labor-backed amendments that it said would have changed the intent of the legislation. The group said the original version of the legislation, Senate Bill 1803, was a “consensus proposal” and would have put limited liability protections in place only during the COVID-19 emergency.
The group criticized an amendment supported by the Service Employees International Union, saying it would have put permanent changes into law. SEIU represents thousands of cleaners, food service workers, nursing assistants and other similar workers at many of Oregon’s major hospital systems.
“Oregon’s health care providers should not fear being sued while they comply with new guidelines issued in response to COVID-19,” said Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of OAHHS. “We are disappointed that House Democrats would only support a bill that included an amendment that takes the legislation outside of its original purpose. This bill has been the result of a long, good faith stakeholder process. To see it hijacked at the 11th hour is disappointing and disturbing. There are no winners here – but the losers are the physicians, nurses and other providers on the frontlines every day caring for Oregonians during a pandemic.”
But the SEIU said the whistleblower protections in the amendment were necessary. The amendment would have expanded protections to other workers in the hospital besides doctors and nurses.
“SEIU feels strongly that quality patient care is delivered by a dedicated team of hospital workers,” Felisa Hagins, political director of SEIU Local 49, said in a statement. “A broadly supported amendment was introduced to protect those front line heroes who came forward on issues related to violations of COVID19 policies and procedures. SEIU absolutely believes that hospital workers, like certified nursing Assistants, respiratory therapists, and hospital house keepers are all critical in the fight against COVID and they should be protected from retaliation for doing the right thing. Legislators agreed with us.”
Other lawmakers expressed disappointment that the liability protection measure failed.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby, on the chamber floor, said she was disappointed the measure didn’t survive.
The bill would not have given blanket immunity to health care providers, and it still allowed lawsuits to continue when gross negligence is involved.
As for the passed bills, they now go to Gov. Kate Brown for a signature. In a statement, Brown said the passed measures will provide relief for Oregonians as the pandemic continues.
“These funds are critical to protect Oregon families and small businesses,” Brown said. “I am also glad they took up critical, COVID-19-related policy bills that will provide relief for tenants and landlords, extend the eviction moratorium, and create avenues to support restaurants and bars.”