BOSTON –Public health officials would have the power to isolate individuals and order quarantines to contain the outbreak of serious contagious diseases under a bill approved by the Massachusetts House on Thursday.
Supporters say that while the bill has been in the works for years, the emergence of swine flu shows the importance of having laws on the books to deal with public health crises. Critics say the bill gives the government too much power.
The bill, approved by a 113-36 vote, is designed to clarify the authority of government and the rights of citizens in the case of a public health crisis. Backers say under existing law there are few checks on the power of government once the governor declares a health emergency.
“The bill strikes that balance between protecting the community in the case of an emergency but also protecting the civil liberties of individuals,” said Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, D-Boston, House chairman of the Committee on Public Health.
Sanchez said the House version of the bill eliminates some of the more contentious parts approved in April by the Senate including sections placing restrictions on the right to public assembly and allowing the arrest of individuals without warrant.
The Senate bill would also allow the government to mandate vaccinations or place into isolation anyone who refused to be vaccinated — a provision that was eliminated from the House version.
“This bill does not change the law to force people to be vaccinated,” Sanchez said.
The bill spells out the authority of the public health commissioner once an emergency is declared — including the power to force the evacuation of public buildings and order health care facilities to provide services to those sickened.
The bill would also let the commissioner limit public access to contaminated areas, adopt measures to safely dispose of infection waste, and store and distribute antitoxins, serums, vaccines and antibiotics.
One of the most contentious parts of the bill would give public health officials the authority to force individuals or groups into isolation or quarantine when there is “reasonable cause to believe that a disease or condition dangerous to the public health exists or may exist or that there is an immediate risk of an outbreak.”
The isolation or quarantine order can be made orally as long as it is followed by a written order. The bill allows those in quarantine to appeal to a Superior Court judge. It also bars employers from firing workers because of a quarantine order.
Rep. Todd Smola, R-Palmer, said he heard from dozens of constituents worried about the Senate version of the bill.
He said there wasn’t enough time to study the changes in the House version, which he said still gives too much power to the commissioner of public health.
“People have enough concerns right now relative to government control invading in their personal space and in their personal lives,” he said.
Other parts of the bill are designed to send up early warning signs of a potential outbreak, including requiring pharmacists to report increased prescription rates or unusual types of prescriptions.
Public health officials would also be allowed to obtain medical records to try to investigate or monitor an outbreak, provided that the medical records remain confidential.
The public health emergency would end whenever the governor says it is over or 90 days after it was first declared, whichever comes first.
The compromise version of both bills must now be worked out.