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Kansas Senate passes bill limiting power of public health mandate

Republican senators managed to pass a bill that undermines the government’s public health authority, but the split within the GOP means the bill wouldn’t have enough votes to override a government veto.

Senate Bill 6 passed Thursday 22-18 with seven Republicans joining all Democrats in voting no. The bill largely disempowers the secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment and local public health officials.

“It doesn’t stop experts from recommending,” Senate Speaker Ty Masterson R-Andover said.

Jenna Moyer, assistant statutory auditor, said existing state law gives the KDHE the authority “to adopt rules and regulations that would designate infectious or contagious diseases. And those would be things like polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps — if you think of anything that’s pretty contagious and infectious that we’ve dealt with in the past, those would be on that list.”

Under the bill, KDHE loses the authority to designate infectious diseases and also loses the power to quarantine or isolate infected people, require them to seek treatment, or limit public gatherings to limit the spread of the disease.

Likewise, local health officers would lose their authority to quarantine and isolate, and law enforcement would no longer be required to enforce the law. Teachers and school administrators would no longer be responsible for reporting infectious disease outbreaks.

“This bill is extremely concerning because we take away the tools that are out there to help protect the public,” said Senator Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park. “The idea is to help prevent disease.”

The bill was introduced by Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, who denounced the public health mandates.

“We are not a dictatorship, and it is important to maintain our individual freedoms,” Steffen said.

Senator Kristen O’Shea, R-Topeka, was one of the Republicans to vote against.

“This bill is an overreaction to an overreaction,” O’Shea said. “Extreme people seem to like to overreact. I’m frustrated that we’re passing bills like this, but I’m also not willing to have hearings on bills that could provide solutions to health care challenges.”

Moreover:Kansas passes 10,000 COVID-19 deaths as bill aims to strip public health officials of authority

Senator Beverly Gossage R-Eudora, who chairs the Senate Public Health Committee, said the bill was inspired by the government’s reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

“All of us have seen in recent history that there has been a little bit of overreach, and churches have been closed, we have seen other businesses that have been closed,” Gossage said.

Kansas hit 10,000 COVID-19 deaths last week.

“It’s unfortunate that we feel like we still have to be armchair quarterbacks two years after a pandemic that killed 10,000 people in Kansas,” said Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City.

He expressed concern about the removal of power over public health while granting the legislature some authority over disease.

“Do we just expect that we will see these infectious diseases spread through our communities and hopefully end them?” Pettey said. “This is not only health-related, but also expensive.”

“This is the United States of America,” Gossage said. “Rather than imposing things and closing churches, deciding what will be open, deciding what will be closed, the way I read the bill is they can recommend and they can educate and then let people decide.”

Moreover:Anti-vaccine policy returns to Kansas Legislature. This time, it’s more than COVID-19.

Senator Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, said the bill “puts them (public health officials) in an advisory role,” but also said, “They have shown us that they are unable to provide adequate guidance “after” blindly followed the CDC’s recommendations” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The public is very well able to make their own personal health decisions,” Thompson said. “I just think this bill is pure common sense and freedom.”

Holscher expressed concern that weakening public health endangers immunocompromised people.

Gossage dismissed the concern because immunocompromised people “always need to be careful when they go out in public and where they currently go.”

Holscher pointed out that while a handful of doctors supported the bill, none of them were epidemiologists or infectious disease specialists.

“This was another hearing where we had the same cast of characters coming in regards to supporters,” Holscher said. “We had a sleep specialist, a bariatric surgeon, an individual who hasn’t had a medical license in Kansas since 1990, and these were the experts talking about this bill and why it needed to be passed.”

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