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Published: Thursday, 3/20/2003

Senate OKs limit on access to health data

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN AND TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

The Ohio Senate has unanimously passed a bill that expands the authority of public health officials, including a provision that would limit the amount of information released to the public during disease outbreaks and other investigations.

Jodi Govern, general counsel for the state health department, said the department frequently has to respond to - and comply with - public records requests from the media, attorneys, and others during disease investigations.

But Ms. Govern said releasing specific information during an investigation is unfair to business or other “entities” affected by the information, and could prevent authorities from getting accurate results. She said restaurants are reluctant to cooperate with an investigation because they know the information is now public.

Ms. Govern said hospitals in the state no longer provide information on some infection-control issues because they don't want the information made public.

Raymond Vasvari, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the bill goes too far in trying to withhold previously public information.

“There's no justification for playing hide the ball when it comes to public health,” Mr. Vasvari said. “People have a right to know. The notion that the public will somehow be harmed by having access to these documents takes a pretty patronizing view of the public.”

Sen. Steve Stivers (R., Columbus), the bill's sponsor, said the bill will be altered in the House to ensure summary and statistical information will still be released, which the state health department supports as well. For example, a health official could still say a 50-year-old man from Lucas County has West Nile virus.

State health officials said information about investigations will be available to the public at the conclusion of an investigation.

Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said he appreciates that Mr. Stivers is willing to make some changes in the bill to ensure some public access. The association hasn't taken a position on the bill, but Mr. Deaner said he's concerned the bill goes too far.

Mr. Stivers said the privacy parts of the bill are only a small part of the legislation, and that the bill is sorely needed to update parts of Ohio's public health code that in some instances haven't been changed since 1918.

Key parts of the legislation include:

w Giving the state the power to stockpile key vaccines that could be used to respond to a disease outbreak, including a bioterrorist attack.

w Requiring pharmacists to report any spike in sales of drugs, even over-the-counter medications, that might signal a disease outbreak.

w Giving new powers to local and state health authorities, including the power to isolate people they suspect might have a highly contagious disease. Authorities now have the power to quarantine individuals, but the law would give them “isolation” powers to seek out individuals before their disease is confirmed and isolate them.

Mr. Deaner said while much of the bill is important, he's worried the legislation is the continuation of an alarming trend to shield information in the name of terrorism preparedness.

“We've hit a dangerous point where we're beginning to go too far,” he said.

He pointed out that in May, the state passed a law allowing officials to withhold information having to do with terrorism planning. The state has cited that law in its refusal to release copies of the state's smallpox preparation plans - a summary was released, but most of the plan was withheld.

Access to public health records is a particularly sensitive issue in Marion, Ohio, site of the largest environmental investigation in the state's history.

An unusually high incidence of leukemia, a rare form of cancer, was revealed there in 1997 after a citizens group began documenting cases and pressing the Ohio Department of Health for answers. A common denominator: Many victims had attended the River Valley School District, which has a middle-high school complex built on a dump the Army once used to bury toxic military waste. The site is 100 miles southeast of Toledo.

Several government agencies, as well as the local school board, have been accused of downplaying the pollution. Residents who pushed for the new facility believe their access to public records shed light on the problem, forcing bureaucrats to respond.

Mike Griffith, a geologist involved in the citizen efforts to obtain information, said it's imperative to keep access to public records open as much as possible to hold public officials accountable for their actions.

Mr. Griffith said the “sad reality” is many decisions that are supposed to be science-based end up being influenced by political and economic considerations.

“By giving them the secrecy, you just open the door for political decisions to prevail in spite of what the science is telling them,” he said.



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