A bill to expand the protection for healthcare workers in Maine
A bill was recently passed in both chambers of Maine’s legislature to enhance the criminal code for assaults against emergency care providers. However, advocates argue that more needs to be done to safeguard healthcare workers. Under current Maine law, assaulting an emergency medical care provider during the administration of emergency medical care is a Class C crime carrying a punishment of up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Although the penalty is more severe than for assaults on other individuals, a task force studying violence against healthcare workers found that the current law’s scope is too limited to be an effective deterrent.
The proposed bill, LD 1119, aims to amend the law to make any intentional, knowing, or reckless bodily injury to a person licensed under the Maine Emergency Medical Services Act of 1982 a crime of assault on an emergency medical services person, regardless of the location of the medical care. Additionally, the bill introduces a new provision that would make it a felony to commit assault on any person employed or contracted by a hospital in the designated emergency room.
The task force report emphasizes that expanding the law would address an existing flaw in the current statute, where a person is not guilty of a felony if they harm someone working in an emergency department who is not directly involved in their care or in an emergency medical situation. By broadening the law, even nurses and non-medical staff working in emergency departments would be protected, making it a felony to assault them.
After a 105-38 vote in favor of the bill in the House, it was placed on the Special Appropriations Table to secure funding from the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. However, the bill sponsor, Sen. Richard Bennett, believes that since there is no funding attached to the bill, it should be taken off the table instead of risking it dying in committee.
Although the bill is seen as a modest step forward, healthcare advocates stress that it falls short of addressing violence against all healthcare workers, regardless of the department where the assault occurs. Data from Maine Medical Center reveals 6,305 reported violent incidents across all hospital departments between January 2021 and May this year. Violence is particularly prevalent in emergency departments due to challenges in boarding behavioral health patients there until they can be transferred to an appropriate facility. Children and youths, in particular, face long waits for behavioral health services, leading to increased stress and tensions in the emergency department environment.
The bill’s opponents argue that expanding the criminal code may disproportionately affect individuals with mental illness. Augusta attorney Walter McKee warned that individuals in an emergency department are often not in their best state of mind, and a single incident should not result in lifelong felony convictions. However, healthcare workers assert that they only intend to involve law enforcement in cases where a patient or visitor deliberately decides to cause harm.
While the bill is an important clarification to the law, healthcare professionals and advocates agree that more comprehensive measures are needed to prevent violence, including building a comprehensive behavioral health system that provides appropriate care in a timely manner.