Committee passes emergency health bill

Courtney Lewis

Displaying a vial of white silicon powder, Dr. Harry Hull shook the container to demonstrate how anthrax turns into a deadly gas when disturbed.

“I want to remind you that I walked into the building with a vial of white powder,” said Hull, an epidemiologist. “It was quite easy to do.”

Hull joined Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the state Department of Health, Tuesday to address the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Minnesota Emergency Health Powers Act.

Although the nearest anthrax case to Minnesota was 1,000 miles away, Hull said he sees a need to raise the commissioner’s authority in case of a biological emergency.

The judiciary committee agreed with Hull, pushing the emergency health bill through.

The bill, authored by Sen. John Hottinger, DFL-Mankato, expands the governor’s powers in the event of an “occurrence or imminent risk of a qualifying health emergency,” Hottinger said in a written statement.

Currently, in the event of a health emergency, the governor has power to commandeer personal property, vehicles or tools and require the public to perform emergency management services.

With new amendments to the emergency health bill, the governor or governor-appointed officials would also be able to seize facilities and quarantine individuals and public areas suspected of being infected. Additionally, officials would be given the power to ration medical supplies.

The bill also mandates doctors share the medical records of patients with certain diseases with public officials.

The bill would allow the governor to require “cessation of movement in all forms of private and public transportation,” although new routes and modes of transportation may be provided by the government.

“This is the approach that I can strongly support,” said Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis, holding up the bill.

Ranum said she hoped something could be learned from the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the subsequent anthrax threats.

Twila Brase, a nurse and president of the Citizens’ Council on Health Care, said she is opposed to the bill because she fears it will infringe on privacy.

“It is our contention that the bill is in place to increase surveillance,” Brase said.

Brase said she was concerned search warrants are never cited in the bill and told the committee the Fourth Amendment requires search warrants to enter personal homes and seize any personal property.

Under the act, the governor’s rights would be expanded in emergencies to control the movement of people and to enter facilities without court papers.

Malcolm said more precision was needed in the legislation, because she said “clarity is an ally in a full-blown emergency.”

“I think this is an issue that will continue to the Legislature and (the Health Department) will be happy to keep working on it,” Malcolm said.

Bob Johnson, an attorney, said he didn’t think the bill provided for enough security.

“When an emergency arises, you don’t call the governor’s office and ask what you should do,” Johnson said. “You take action.”

The state Health Department has asked for $250,000 to fund its responsibilities under the legislation. Congress has provided Minnesota with $18 million for health and human services.

Hottinger said he saw opposition to the bill as paranoia and asked the committee, “How many people are going to have to die in order to accept this act as law?”

Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids, said even after the committee’s approval, the legislation still has a long way to go before it becomes a law.

Brase said, “I intend to oppose this act all the way to the Legislature.”

Courtney Lewis welcomes comments at [email protected]