States to Consider Model Bioterrorism Legislation
State lawmakers nationwide will likely consider model legislation released last month by the CDC, which would replace existing public health statutes with a "sweeping, detailed enumeration of state emergency powers" in the event of a bioterrorist attack, the Washington Post reports. The legislation would allow large-scale quarantine, seizure of hospitals and businesses, mandatory vaccination and destruction of contaminated property without owners' consent. Lawmakers in "virtually every state" next year will consider the legislation, which is backed by the Bush administration. The bills will force states to "grapple with the right balance between civil liberties and emergency health powers." The legislation would replace existing public health laws -- "often just a paragraph or even a sentence granting health authorities emergency powers like quarantine" -- with 40 pages of legal code detailing powers and standards, as well as information-sharing requirements. The legislation 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. "Most public health laws were written years ago -- some are over 100 years old," Georges Benjamin, Maryland's health secretary, said, adding, "There really hasn't been a comprehensive update. Now is the time to have the debate, not when you have a crisis." Illinois and Nevada lawmakers have introduced the model legislation as a bill in their state legislatures, and Massachusetts acting Gov. Jane Swift (R) plans to support a measure based on the model law. However, some critics have said that the law would "substitute a complicated, dangerous new scheme for older state health laws" that had the "virtue of simplicity." Edward Richards, head of the Center for Public Health Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said, "When you actually look at the state public health laws, they aren't bad. One size just doesn't fit all. Each state needs to look at its own laws to figure out what needs to be fixed" (Gillis, Washington Post, 11/19).