Markell vetoes bill toughening penalties for doctor-patient sex

DOVER — Gov. Jack Markell has vetoed a bill that attempted to govern sexual relationships between health professionals and patients, his office announced Tuesday.

The move came as a shock to the proposal’s main sponsor. The bill had passed unanimously and Rep. Kim Williams, D-Newport, said the governor’s office had previously given no indication there were questions about it.

House Bill 130 would have expanded the punishment for health-care providers who have sexual contact with a patient by upping it from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Jack Markell

Jack Markell

As a Class F felony, the law would have carried with it a jail sentence of up to three years and required registration as a Tier II sex offender.

It currently is a Class A misdemeanor, with violators facing a maximum of one year in jail.

In a Monday letter to members of the General Assembly that the governor’s office released Tuesday, Gov. Markell expressed concerns about the proposal’s broad nature.

For instance, he wrote, a doctor who begins dating a patient who visits solely for regular physicals would technically be guilty of a felony under the scope of this legislation.

“House Bill 130 does not distinguish between situations where there is consent and no consent or account for the fact that a doctor-patient relationship may be different in one context (e.g. a mental health counselor) than another (e.g. a dental hygienist),” he wrote.

“While consensual sexual contact in the context of a professional relationship may raise serious questions about the health care professional’s integrity and professional responsibility, there are already substantial mechanisms in place to deter inappropriate sexual contact between a health care professional and patient.

“Health professionals are governed by their respective licensing boards, and engaging in inappropriate relationships with patients can trigger sanctions up to and including loss of professional license and referral for criminal prosecution.”

Laws already exist to prevent sexual contact with patients, especially minors, he wrote.

Rep. Williams said she was first informed of potential concerns by the governor’s office on Monday. No lawmakers or outside groups had expressed opposition, she said.

This is the 15th bill vetoed by Gov. Markell and just the third in the past three years. He vetoed a bill allowing parents to opt their children out of the Smarter Balanced assessment last month.

Rep. Williams said she hopes to have a veto override when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. If both chambers pass the bill by a three-fifths vote, House Bill 130 would become law.

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