ANNAPOLIS – Maryland legislators are taking careful interest in a new legislative proposal crafted by a federal health interest group to give state governments the power to take coordinated and far-reaching action during public health crises.
“It’s a very useful road map. It addresses all the issues,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery. “I’m not sure yet that it’s the right (plan) for Maryland.”
Frosh was one of the first legislators in the state to review the proposal, released this week.
The 40-page Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, a collaborative effort by public health law experts from Johns Hopkins and Georgetown universities, grants governors the authority to declare health emergencies, seize private property and quarantine individuals suspected of exposure to contagious diseases.
The draft, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also outlines state procedures for reporting and tracking potential public health threats and for informing the public of those threats.
“This model act really is trying to equip governors . . . with the powers they need during a true public health emergency,” said James G. Hodge, director of the legislation project at the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins.
Many states already have some kind of disaster response developed through their health or environmental agencies, experts say, but few have any emergency regulations enacted as public law.
State statutes that do exist are often outdated and would be ineffective in responding to a modern health threat, Hodge said.
In Maryland, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency coordinate the state’s bioterror and pandemic disease response plans. State officials see the plans, but the public generally doesn’t, department spokesmen said.
Authors of the new proposal would prefer a more open system of developing emergency response plans, although they support those already in place.
“What we’re hearing a lot from state (legislators) is that they recognize the capacity of their departments of health to respond to public health emergencies, but they’re a little unsure how far those powers can be taken,” Hodge said.
Rather than keep emergency plans an administrative secret, the proposal aims to “put the powers and duties question directly before the Legislature, which is directly responsible to the people,” Hodge said.
An effective state response to a serious public health threat could place individual civil liberties on hold, Hodge said, and so public support for such a response is essential.
The model bill calls for state seizure and disposal of infected corpses, when appropriate, and makes vaccination and treatment of at-risk individuals mandatory on penalty of arrest and quarantine.
“We want to make sure we’re not running roughshod over people’s individual rights,” said Frosh.
Frosh, a member of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, says he supports the idea of legislated public health emergency powers but says the model bill may not fit Maryland’s emergency response needs.
“In a public health emergency, what kind of steps do we want good government to be able to take?” he said. “We’re trying to sort through all the potential problems and all the potential solutions and come up with what’s best for the state.”
That’s how most states are responding, said Lisa Speissegger, public health adviser to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a partner in developing the model legislation.
“This (model bill) is meant for state legislators, governors and others to use as a tool, as an ideal piece of legislation – which we think it might be,” Speissegger said. “Our intent is for them to look at it and say, `OK, what things don’t we have in our law?'”
The bill’s design, she said, allows legislators to modify and incorporate it piecemeal into existing state law.
The bill is being distributed to state governors, legislators and attorneys for review. A second draft will be written next month, after the bill’s authors have collected state feedback.
So far, Delaware, California, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and New York have all consulted with the Center for Law and the Public’s Health to develop emergency response legislation, Hodge said.
Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening has yet to comment on the model or whether he will endorse any of its measures. The governor has called for increased coordination between state emergency response systems and Thursday introduced a proposal to create regional terrorism response teams in Maryland.