Friday, October 9, 2009

Swine flu quarantine bill OK'd by Massachusetts House of Representatives:

By Dan Ring
October 08, 2009, 9:57PM

BOSTON - The state House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill that gives public health officials the authority to isolate or quarantine people to contain swine flu or other infectious diseases.

The House voted 113-36 to approve the bill, developed to prepare the state in the event an emergency is declared over swine flu. The bill also calls for fines up to $1,000 or jail terms of up to six months if people violate certain measures instituted during a public health emergency.

Rep. Sean F. Curran, D-Springfield, said the bill is an overreaction to a problem that currently does not exist.

“Swine flu hasn’t taken off as a pandemic,” Curran said after the vote. “We’re jumping the gun with this legislation that could potentially quarantine people.”

Other House members from Western Massachusetts who voted against the bill included Reps. Rosemary Sandlin, D-Agawam, Brian M. Ashe, D-Longmeadow, Cheryl A. Coakley-Rivera, D-Springfield, Angelo J. Puppolo, D-Springfield, and Todd M. Smola, R-Palmer.

Supporters said the bill is aimed at spelling out the powers of government and the rights of individuals in the event of a public health emergency.

“It’s a necessary framework for responding to epidemics if we have them,” said Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville. “We need to have laws in place that lay out what rights and responsibilities exist.”

The Senate in April voted unanimously to approve the bill, but the House stripped out some provisions that opponents believe are too onerous in controlling civil rights.

Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, D-Boston, the co-chairman of the Committee on Public Health, said the House eliminated Senate provisions such as one that allows public officials to search private properties without a warrant and to restrict public gatherings.

The House also refused to go along with a Senate measure that allowed officials to force private nurses into working for the state, he said.

The House bill allows officials to isolate infected people or detain and quarantine people in good health who have been exposed, but it also clears people to appeal orders to a Superior Court.

People could be isolated or quarantined if 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.”

Under the House bill, people could be fined or jailed if they violate orders to close or evacuate public buildings or measures to provide for the safe disposal of infectious waste, for example.

The measures could be put into effect if Gov. Deval L. Patrick declares a public health emergency.

Sanchez said a governor’s emergency could exist for 90 days, but a governor would need to reauthorize the emergency after that time passes.

Laura A. Jackson, of Agawam, president of a group called the Liberty Preservation Association of Massachusetts, and David P. Kopacz of Ware, the vice president, said they opposed the bill.

Jackson said the bill is completely unnecessary since existing laws provide protections and prepare the state without violating constitutional rights.

Kopacz said the bill goes too far in protecting health care providers from liability or damages while rendering emergency care.

“There’s no incentive for caution when no one is held liable for their actions,” he said.

Under the bill, the public health commissioner could require evacuation of public buildings and order hospitals or other providers to take certain steps to care for the sick.

Smola said he heard from nearly 90 constituents who were concerned the bill allows too much government intrusion.

“I don’t think we had enough time to vet this bill,” Smola said.

Rep. Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton, disagreed. “The House did a good job in ensuring that constitutional rights were protected,” he said.

House and Senate leaders now will develop a compromise bill that would need to be approved again in each branch before it goes to the governor for his signature.

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