Model Public Health Legislation Raises Privacy Concerns
With as many as a dozen state legislatures this year likely to debate model legislation recently released by the CDC designed to strengthen states' authority to cope with a bioterrorist attack, a "new battleground" has been created between public health activists and civil libertarians, Wall Street Journal reports. Supporters say the legislation in needed to update and clarify current public health laws, while opponents contend that such legislation could lead to "unwarranted government coercion of people to undergo medical treatment ... and unnecessary disclosure of personal medical records" (Lueck, Wall Street Journal, 1/7). Under the current draft, in the event of a bioterrorism emergency, the legislation would allow large-scale quarantine, seizure of hospitals and businesses, mandatory vaccination and destruction of contaminated property without owners' consent. It also includes "broad procedural safeguards" and rules for enforcement. Under the legislation, states would have new rights to monitor personal information to track public health, and governors could declare a health emergency in order to invoke additional powers in the event of a bioterrorist attack (California Healthline, 11/19/01). The legislation also would allow the government to detain anyone who refuses a medical examination or treatment. The Journal reports that the changes in states' authority could also be extended to other situations, including natural disasters or dangerous flu outbreaks.
Opponents of the model legislation have raised concerns that it would provide governors "unchecked power." Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said the model law "puts the lives of an entire state in the hands of one person who may or may not rise to the occasion." Sandy Bourne, who oversees the model legislation issue for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of 2,400 state legislators "dedicated to free markets and individual freedom," said that the scope of the legislation may be too broad. "We're talking about limiting firearms and property, taking clothing and livestock. This is not about protecting the public health," Bourne said. However, Lawrence Gostin, director of the Center for Law and the Public's Health at Georgetown University and the head writer of the model legislation, said that the legislation contains a provision in which the state legislature may override the governor with a majority vote. Gostin added that while he is "sensitive to concerns about civil liberties, a "balance" must be found. "You do have to face hard tradeoffs between civil liberties and property rights of individuals against the collective rights of society. We do need to give up a little bit," Gostin said (Wall Street Journal, 1/7).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.