For nearly two hours this morning, lawmakers in Helena listened to testimony and debated the consequences of a bill that could change the penalties for attacking a healthcare worker. The bill James O’Hara introduced to the House Judiciary committee is 28 lines long, less than a page.
Despite its brevity, the bill was not short on input from the public. O’Hara, a Republican from Fort Benton, says his bill would make it a felony to assault a healthcare worker.
"It is my hope that Montana joins 32 other states in adding another level of protection for the healthcare professional, and workers," says O'Hara. "I would recommend a do pass."
Anna Pentecost who works at St. Peter's Hospital in Helena says people in her profession get really close to patients to take care of them, and that makes them vulnerable. She told the story of a man who needed care in the emergency room where she works.
"I went to go change the blood pressure cuff from one arm to the other because he was there for a while, and you don’t want to leave it on their skin for too long," says Pentecost. "And he took it upon himself to reach between my legs and grab me. I had to go home that day. I couldn’t stand the thought of my clothes. I couldn’t stand the thought of my shoes. I stripped down before I even walked in the hallway of my house, because I didn’t want anything of that patient on me."
The Montana Nurses Association says there needs to be a bigger penalty when people assault workers trying to provide medical care. The proposed bill would create a fine up to a $50,000 and penalty of up to 10 years in prison for attacking a healthcare worker. But Beth Brenneman with Disability Rights Montana says the bill’s language could penalize people with disabilities, and other people who aren’t fully aware of their actions — putting them in jail when that’s not the best place for them.
"We are very concerned about our people that we represent that encounter health care professionals quite often when they are in crisis and really don’t have a whole lot of thought before an assaultive event, as tragic as that is," says Brenneman.
Supporters of HB-268 say the bill isn’t directed at people with disabilities. Other opponents to the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, say the legislation creates additional crimes out of what is already illegal under Montana law.
The House Judiciary committee didn’t vote on the bill today, but will likely do so in the coming week. A similar version of this bill failed in the last two legislative sessions.