Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Secret health probes approved

Senate panel OK's confidential clause

By Jim Siegel
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - A Senate committee voted Tuesday to make secret the identities of companies associated with pending local and state health department investigations.

Republicans fought off a Democrat challenge and changed a long-standing law that says pending health department investigations are public records, accessible to anyone who requests them.

Under the new provision, contained in a bill designed to help the state health department deal with bioterrorism, businesses under investigation for health threats will not be identified until the investigation is complete.

"It is not the role of public health to spread rumor, innuendo or speculation," Jodi Govern, chief legal counsel for the state health department, told the Senate Finance Committee. "Certainly once the source of disease is identified we agree the actual source can be identified."

Those opposed to the change in law argue that's not good enough, particularly for investigations that last weeks or even months. A coalition of environmental, public interest and media groups pushed to keep in place current law regarding health department records.

"Let's be fair to public health," said Jack Shaner, public affairs coordinator for the Ohio Environmental Council. "Corporations can take care of themselves."

Sen. Eric Fingerhut, D-Cleveland, argued against the change in law, asking Govern to provide specific examples of how the current law hurts health department investigations.

Govern cited a central Ohio grocery story that was reluctant to cooperate with an investigation because of concerns over publicity. But otherwise, she struggled to find concrete examples of past problems with the law.

"I understand we can conjure up situations we want to protect against in the future...but we've lived under this policy for a long time," Fingerhut said.

"The tortured efforts for coming up with examples has revealed that there really hasn't been a serious problem with the law as it exists."

But committee chairman Sen. Bill Harris, R-Ashland, said the health department needs time to get its facts straight before releasing information.

He also argued that current law could cost jobs, because businesses could be hurt by having their names released before an investigation is complete.

Govern said the health department doesn't want business reputations unfairly hurt by media reports. Officials also don't want the perceptions of potential victims tainted by media accounts.

The bill passed along party lines and is expected to be voted on by the full Senate today.

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