A new legislative task force will study violence against health care workers and eventually make recommendations for bringing criminal cases against perpetrators.

The task force is the result of a bill introduced by Rep. Walter Riseman, I-Harrison, over a year ago and signed into law last month.

Riseman said his bill came out of conversations he had with health care professionals before the pandemic, “that were concerned about the potential for some sort of violence to happen, either in a medical professional’s office or in the emergency room, or wherever it might be.”

An early supporter of Riseman’s bill was the Maine Hospital Association, the organization’s vice president of government affairs and communications, Jeff Austin, said Wednesday.

The Augusta-based nonprofit represents 36 hospitals across the state of Maine. Austin said that violence in all its forms — be it physical or verbal — are “a big problem. It’s unacceptable.”

“But our members are unclear of when and why some instances of violence get pursued through the criminal justice system by law enforcement, prosecutors and courts, and other cases seem to not get pursued,” he said.


Violence against health care workers has always been a concern, task force co-chairman Sen. Ned Claxton said. But incidents have increased during the pandemic, when “fuses were getting shorter” and patients or their family members were “acting out” in ways they might not have prior.

In February, the union representing nurses at the state’s largest hospital, Maine Medical Center in Portland, protested what a representative called “extreme workplace violence.”

The same month, representatives of Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center said there, too, employees were facing a rise in patient assaults.

And in March, the president of the American Hospital Association wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice urging action to protect health care workers, citing violence against hospital workers that has “markedly increased (with) no sign it is receding.”

Sen. Ned Claxton

Claxton, an Auburn Democrat and retired physician, said the task force’s focus should be to answer three main questions: How to protect staff, how to take into consideration a patient’s circumstances and how to make the criminal process more transparent, especially for the victims.

The nine-member task force will consist of four lawmakers, four health care professionals, two members of the judicial branch, two members representing district attorneys and one law enforcement officer. The task force is expected to present its findings and recommendations to the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety no later than November of this year.


Rep. Anne Perry

Senate President Troy Jackson appointed Claxton and Rep. Anne Perry, a Democrat from Washington County, as co-chairs earlier this week. The other members have not been publicly announced yet.

In testimony during a public hearing in March 2021, representatives from Northern Light and MaineHealth, the state’s two largest health care networks, said that health care workers who experience an assault are sometimes uncomfortable with helping law enforcement pursue a criminal case.

“Medical providers take an oath to ‘do no harm’ and because of this, they often put their own safety and health at risk to help a patient. Unfortunately, our current system does not provide a clear path in which to hold individuals who commit acts of violence against health care workers accountable,” Sarah Calder, director of government affairs for MaineHealth, said in written testimony.

“At times, a district attorney may choose not to pursue a case, and, in other instances, the victim may be uncomfortable holding a patient accountable for criminal behavior,” she said.

Austin, from the MHA, said ultimately hospitals would like to understand the criminal process for these types of cases better but that this is “one small angle” of the issue of workplace violence.

The task force is slated to begin meeting within the next month.

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