‘Irresponsible,’ ‘shortsighted,’ ‘shameful:’ Public health officials warn about bill to curtail health orders

Local public health leaders urged residents to ask their state lawmakers to not support Senate Bill 22, which seeks to curtail the governor and health department’s public health authority and give more oversight power to lawmakers.

Gov. Mike DeWine vetoed the bill Tuesday and his administration is exerting political pressure to avoid a veto override. Legislative leaders have said they believe they have the votes to override the veto.

Several local health leaders characterized the legislative battle in Columbus as a power struggle that could end up limiting the ability for health authorities to make local decisions when quick action is needed to contain infectious disease outbreaks.

Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson said the bill would strip away authority to make decisions that protect the public.

The bill impacts not just what needs be done in the weeks ahead, he said, but also decisions down the road, such as with Ebola outbreaks. That’s just one of many communicable diseases that Patterson said SB 22 restricts how the health district could respond. “Without someone being medically diagnosed, we would no longer be able to quarantine or isolate those individuals,” he said. “This is, on so many levels, not good legislation for the people of Ohio.”

Among its provisions, SB 22 specifies that any order or regulation issued by a local board of health for the prevention or restriction of disease may apply only to individuals and businesses that:

  • Have been medically diagnosed with the disease that is the subject of the order or regulation.
  • Have come in direct contact with someone who has been medically diagnosed with the disease that is the subject of the order regulation.
  • Have a documented incident in the building of the disease that is the subject of the order or regulation.

Senate Bill 22 passed the Ohio House on a 57-38 vote and the Ohio Senate on a 25-8 vote. All Miami Valley lawmakers voted yes, except state Reps. Willis Blackshear Jr., D-Dayton, Andrea White, R-Kettering, and Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, who all cast no votes.

Support for a bill and support for an override can be two different questions but legislative leaders say they have the required two-thirds majority vote required for an override.

Jeff Cooper, health commissioner with Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County, said he believed people should know that many local elected officials have supported this legislation, naming state Sens. Niraj Antani and Steve Huffman, and state Reps. Rodney Creech, Phil Plummer and Tom Young.

“We strongly urge now, the General Assembly to act in the best interest of the public health of all Ohioans, and to not override the governor’s veto,” Cooper said.

Greene County Public Health Commissioner Melissa Howell said she would encourage people to contact their local representatives who voted for SB 22, including state Reps. Bill Dean and Brian Lampton, and state Sen. Bob Hackett.

Health officials from area counties released a letter calling Senate Bill 22 “a colossal misstep” that “demonstrates a willful neglect of scientific evidence.”

The three-page letter from Montgomery County county commissioners and the health departments of Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami, Piqua, Preble, Montgomery and Warren counties warns of ill-advised changes to public health authority.

The local officials called SB 22 reactionary, disturbing, troubling and ignorant, and warned that it would hamper efforts to contain future epidemics. They also said that curtailing public health authority would have a disparate impact on minority and low-income communities.

“Proposing such legislation is shameful,” the letter said.

The letter comes a day after DeWine sent a five-page critique of SB22 to state lawmakers.

State Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, responded to DeWine, saying they have different views of government powers and individual freedoms.

“When power is consolidated through emergency it always leads to tragic oppression and is rarely retrieved by the people without desperate action,” Wiggam said in his letter. “In the past year, Ohioans have faced constantly moving goal posts and life changing policies from one branch of Ohio’s three branches of government.”

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