By Jim Siegel
Gannett Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - If a business is under investigation by the state for health violations, people may no longer know about it.
Included in a bioterrorism bill expected to pass a state Senate committee today is a provision sealing all state health department investigations from public view until they are completed.
Current law shields only individuals. But the bill, at the request of health department officials, would make a one-word change in state law, protecting the identity of all businesses as well.
"What possible public health interest is served by keeping this a secret?" said Bryan Clark, conservation program coordinator for the Ohio Sierra Club.
"Health investigations touch on the most intimate details of our lives, and the health and safety of our families. This is something too important to leave up to state bureaucracy."
The Sierra Club is part of a coalition of environmental, public interest and media groups that is lobbying lawmakers to keep in place current law regarding health department records.
But despite their protests, Sen. Bill Harris, R-Ashland, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, expects it to pass today.
"Most of us feel we want to make sure information is provided to the public as soon as possible, but we don't want the situation to create a panic without any basis," he said. "I think the objective of the health department is to ensure that before data of this type is released there has been time to conduct an inquiry."
Rep. Jimmy Stewart, R-Athens, sponsor of the bill, said the measure will help protect small businesses from having their reputations unfairly ruined.
"What if you're a restaurant under investigation, but it turns out nothing was wrong?" he said. "In the meantime, the restaurant's name has been plastered all over the news media. Do you think anyone is going to eat there again?"
Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, compared it to a criminal investigation, where a suspect's identity is revealed long before he or she is convicted of a crime.
The main purpose of the bioterrorism bill is to improve Ohio's response to a biological terror attack through changes to the duties of the state health department. Critics argue the issue of protecting the identity of businesses under investigation has nothing to do with the bill's overall intent.
Sen. Jim Carnes, R-St. Clairsville, also a Finance Committee member, said lawmakers will be able to find a balance in how and when information is released.
"The public's right to know is important," he said. "But we can't have information becoming public early and destroying cases. So there needs to be a compromise."
The state health department was closed Monday for Columbus Day and a message for comment was not returned.
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