House OK’s bill clarifying quarantine rules

Goal is update on powers in time of crisis

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

The Massachusetts House overwhelmingly approved a controversial measure yesterday that clarifies the powers of public health authorities in times of medical crisis.

The law, passed by a 113-to-36 vote, updates emergency regulations that had remained largely untouched for decades. The Senate voted in favor of a similar measure in the spring, and now the two versions must be reconciled before reaching Governor Deval Patrick, whose top health officials support updating the emergency powers.

Massachusetts governors and public health commissioners have long possessed sweeping authority during health emergencies, including the ability to quarantine people suffering from communicable diseases.

But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the arrival of letters containing anthrax a month later on Capitol Hill and in media offices exposed gaps in the laws.

More than three dozen other states revised their emergency health laws in recent years, even as legislation languished in Massachusetts.

The arrival of swine flu in April demonstrated the need to revise the emergency health powers and spurred the Senate to action, public health advocates said.

The bill approved yesterday imposes checks on certain powers possessed by health authorities, allowing, for instance, someone subjected to quarantine to appeal to the courts. Under the law, employers would be forbidden from firing workers who had been placed under quarantine.

“The bill strikes that balance between protecting the community in the case of an emergency but also protecting the civil liberties of individuals,’’ Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, a Boston Democrat and House chairman of the Committee on Public Health, told the Associated Press.

Concerns around swine flu vaccinations, however, have stoked opposition to the law.

Protesters took to Beacon Hill, hoisting a banner emblazoned with a syringe and a skull and crossbones that suggested the law would allow health authorities to vaccinate people against their will. In fact, the law specifically forbids forced vaccination, although health officials would have the ability to quarantine people who decline inoculations during extraordinary health emergencies.

In an interview last month, John Auerbach, the state’s public health commissioner, said the emergency powers are reserved for extreme threats and that swine flu, which has not proven to be as severe as once feared, does not constitute such a threat.

Representative Todd Smola, a Palmer Republican, said he believes the measure still gives too much power to the commissioner of public health. “People have enough concerns right now relative to government control invading in their personal space and in their personal lives,’’ he said.

According to the state Department of Public Health, public health emergencies have been declared only three times since the 1970s, with the most recent being a 2006 order for aerial spraying to combat Eastern equine encephalitis in Southeastern Massachusetts.

In 1993, when West Stockbridge’s water supply ran dry, the agency used its powers to tap water from a private source. And in the 1970s, the state took control of a financially teetering nursing home.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.