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Last Updated

19 Dec 2002

Source: USA Today, July 23, 2002.

Many States Reject Bioterrorism Law

By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY

Nearly 10 months after anthrax attacks caused chaos among health officials from Florida to New York, fewer than a third of the states have adopted laws to give governors and state health officials powers to respond to a bioterrorism attack or other public-health emergencies.

A model law developed for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and provided to state legislatures last year would give authorities the right to enforce quarantines, vaccinate people, seize and destroy property without compensation, and ration medical supplies, food and fuel in a public-health emergency.

Such laws are needed, federal officials say, because they give authorities the guidance and legal ability to make quick decisions in an emergency involving contagious or deadly pathogens.

Most state health emergency laws haven't been updated since polio tore through the population a half-century ago.

"We have not used emergency powers in probably 50 years," says Gene Matthews, a lawyer for the Department of Health and Human Services. "This is something we need to attend to."

But a broad coalition of opponents, ranging from civil libertarians to conservative physicians, says the proposed law would violate individual rights and give government too much power. Their objections have caused lawmakers in some states to scuttle the bill.

The Model State Emergency Health Powers Act "gives governors and state health officials a blank check to impose the most draconian sorts of measures," Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union says. It's "designed to bring quarantine and other laws into the 21st century, but in many ways it is a throwback."

So far, 16 states and the District of Columbia have passed all or parts of the model law. It has been rejected or stalled in 22 states.

In California, efforts to pass the law were shot down in April. Republican Assemblyman Keith Richman, the bill's sponsor and the Legislature's only physician, says lawmakers are "already suffering from disaster amnesia. They have their heads stuck in the sand."

The act "goes far beyond bioterrorism," says Andrew Schlafly of the conservative Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. "Unelected state officials can force treatment or vaccination of citizens against the advice of their doctors."

But James Hodge of the Center for Law and the Public's Health at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities, which drafted the law, says it would be used only in extreme cases. He says he is encouraged that so many states have adopted all or parts of the law.

"There's nothing in this act that's not constitutionally possible," Hodge says.