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Published: 9/21/2003

Bill would provide investigation cloak to Ohio businesses

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Businesses would have the same privacy rights as citizens when the Ohio Department of Health investigates the cause of any disease or illness under a bill the legislature plans to tackle this fall.

Eight consumer, environmental, and media groups are protesting two sections of a bill that the Senate is examining.

As approved by the House of Representatives on June 25, the measure would allow the public to receive information about investigations if it is in “summary, statistical, or aggregate form and ... does not identify a person ...”

In addition to an individual, the use of “person” in Ohio Revised Code is interpreted to cover a business or a corporation.

“This equates the universally acknowledged importance of protecting the privacy of an individual's medical history with the dubious attempt to shield from public disclosure a corporation that is the subject of a health investigation or inquiry,” according to a letter signed by eight groups, including the League of Women Voters of Ohio and the Ohio Newspaper Association.

The bill also would prohibit the release of information during an investigation unless the director of the state health department decides the data is needed to “avert or mitigate a clear threat to an individual or to the public health.”

The state Department of Health included the two sections in a bill that would give the state more power to combat a potential bioterrorism attack.

The use of the word “person” to bar public access during a health investigation was added as the House Homeland Security Committee amended the bill, said the sponsor, state Rep. Jimmy Stewart (R., Athens).

Mr. Stewart said he couldn't recall who requested the change, but he said the goal is to protect businesses that are investigated - and are not found to be culprits.

Bryan Clark, conservation program coordinator for the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club, said the state health department has failed to justify why the changes in state law are needed.

“Show us an instance where you released the name of a corporation and release of the name had an adverse impact on that corporation's bottom line. No one can answer the most fundamental question: Why would we change a century-old health law if it is not broken?” Mr. Clark said.

Jodi Govern, general counsel of the state health department, said existing law “leads to less cooperation from individuals and businesses because they don't have any incentive to cooperate with it.”

Jack Pounds, president of the Ohio Chemistry Technology Council, said he had not heard of any business trade groups that had urged the health department or legislature to give companies protection from disclosure of government records.

He said companies that conduct health assessments of their workers are required under federal law to report their findings.

Catherine Turcer, legislative director for the consumer and environmental group Ohio Citizen Action, said the health department is using fears about bioterrorism to try to make it tougher for groups that oppose the state's efforts to restrict public access to government documents.

“No one wants to say, `Sign me up with the terrorists.' It puts anyone in opposition in an awkward spot,” she said.

Ms. Turcer said the bill would give the director of the state health department too much power.

For example, if the bill becomes law, a company investigated as part of an outbreak of illness or disease could receive information from the state - but citizens could not, Mr. Clark said.

State Sen. Steve Stivers (R., Columbus), sponsor of a similar measure in the Senate, said he supports amending the bill to make it clear that the health department director must release statistical data.

Judy Junga, a Toledo resident and an Envirosafe watchdog, said she requested information from the state health department in 1996 about elevated radionuclide levels at the hazardous waste landfill in Oregon.

“We fund these agencies through our taxes. Why shouldn't we have access to the information? Doesn't every person have the right to look out for their vital interests? Can we do that if they take away the tools we have, which the Founding Fathers gave us?” she said.



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