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Oregon lawmakers seek stiffer charges for assaults on hospital workers

Many states consider assaults on medical workers a felony, but efforts to follow suit in Salem have foundered on civil rights concerns
A pile of flowers and a note eulogizing Bobby Smallwood, a security officer for Legacy Health, sit outside the Good Samaritan Medical Center, where he was killed during a confrontation on July 30, 2023. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
October 26, 2023

As health care workers continue to be subject to violence and threats, and following the killing of a Legacy Health worker, Oregon lawmakers are reviving an effort to increase the criminal penalty for assaulting hospital employees. 

State Reps. Travis Nelson, D-Portland, and Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, have formed a work group to discuss legislation to address health care workplace violence in the upcoming legislative session that begins in February. Their efforts come over a year after Boshart Davis’ bill — that would have elevated intentionally assaulting a health care worker from a misdemeanor to a felony — passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, but died in the Senate amid concerns that it would further criminalize mental illness.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to eliminate assaults in health care,” Nelson, a registered nurse with strong ties to labor unions, told The Lund Report. “But we should be doing all that we can to decrease the number, and I’m optimistic that we will get to a place where we’ll have a bill that will do that.”

Boshart Davis, whose sister testified in 2022 about repeated assaults while working as an emergency room nurse, told The Lund Report the new effort aims to improve on the last one, which was also introduced in a short session. 

“We only have five weeks,” Boshart Davis told The Lund Report, of the upcoming legislative session’s short timeframe. “You can’t have a bunch of amendments. This has to be ready to go. I am encouraged and cautiously optimistic.”

Nearly 40 states have increased penalties for assaulting health care workers. Oregon does increase penalties for assaulting some workers, including paramedics, taxi drivers and mass transit vehicle operators — but not hospital workers.

Following the 2022 bill’s demise in Salem, the increased levels of violence against health care workers have continued both in Oregon and nationally, fueling burnout, mental health issues and high turnover. Workplace violence was already on the rise before the pandemic. Last year, more than half of emergency room doctors nationally were assaulted, one survey found. Other research found that on average 57 nurses are assaulted every day.

Last year, more than half of emergency room doctors nationally were assaulted.

Over the summer, health care workers and others reacted with alarm after a visitor at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital fatally shot security officer Bobby Smallwood and left another employee injured.

Boshart Davis and Nelson’s work group includes representatives from hospitals, unions, disability advocates, lawmakers, prosecutors and others who are hashing out disagreements in hopes of having a bill ready for next year’s  legislative session.

Both Boshart Davis and Nelson said the group’s members widely agree that something needs to be done. But they will need to resolve a familiar sticking point on whether it will penalize mental illness with jail or prison time. 

An old debate over unintended consequences

State Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, a Corvallis Democrat and a member of the work group, told The Lund Report that people who attack health care workers shouldn’t get a pass. But she remains worried that enhancing penalties for health care worker assaults will have unintended consequences. 

“My fear is it will create some additional barriers to some very vulnerable people to accessing care that they really need.”

“My fear is it will create some additional barriers to some very vulnerable people to accessing care that they really need,” said Gelser Blouin, a longtime advocate for disabled people. 

She described a scenario where a person having delusions might be afraid of needles and think they are defending themself from a medical worker trying to give them care. Caregivers for people with similar circumstances might be reluctant to seek medical care for them out of concerns they’ll attack a health care worker and face felony charges, she said. 

Boshart Davis’ previous bill would have only applied to people who acted “knowingly” and “intentionally.” But Gelser Blouin said a disabled person could still have trouble finding a public defender to contest the charge and be deemed by a court to be unable to aid and assist in their defense.

Disability Rights Oregon has expressed concerns similar to Gelser Blouin’s. Nelson said Disability Rights Oregon and the Oregon District Attorneys Association, both of which have seats on the workgroup, are trying to come to an agreement on how the penalty would apply to people with cognitive impairments. 

But Gelser Blouin said there is a “great deal of distance” between prosecutors and disability advocates. 

Disability Rights Oregon and the Oregon District Attorneys Association did not provide comment by press time. 

Boshart Davis said she shares concerns about charging people who don’t understand their actions. But she said there needs to be consequences for people who deliberately assault health care workers. 

Nelson said one area of agreement that’s emerged is that visitors who assault hospital staff should be charged with a felony. 

Role of hospitals

Nelson said he supports making it a felony to knowingly and intentionally assault a health care worker, but he voted against Boshart Davis’ bill because it didn’t require hospitals to take a more proactive approach to workplace violence. 

Nelson said he wants hospitals to increase training for workers to deescalate potentially volatile situations, in addition to completing a root cause analysis after an employee is assaulted to see how to prevent future incidents. He also wants hospitals to follow up with injured workers on how to file for workers’ compensation. 

“When you’re in crisis, something being a misdemeanor versus a felony is not going to stop you from hurting somebody.”

“When you’re in crisis, something being a misdemeanor versus a felony is not going to stop you from hurting somebody,” he said. “It’s the other type of interventions that make a difference.”

Boshart Davis said she’s open to Nelson’s ideas. But she said Oregon already has comparatively strong requirements that direct hospitals, ambulatory surgical centers and home health agencies to conduct safety assessments every two years. They’re also required to develop assault prevention programs and keep records of incidents. 

She also pointed out that the Hospital Association of Oregon along with the Oregon Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union and others earlier developed a widely used workplace prevention toolkit.

“I think that those standards are already very high,” she said. 

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via X @jakethomas2009.