Kelly vetoes bill restricting state, local health official powers

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Gov. Laura Kelly on Friday vetoed a bill limiting the power of state and local health authorities to control the spread of contagious and infectious diseases that critics said would cripple the state’s ability to protect the public.

The bill rejected by the governor would have restricted the power of the state health secretary and local health officials from taking various actions that would keep the spread of infectious diseases in check.

The Senate voted 22-18 to pass the bill. The House passed the bill on a 63-56 vote. But the Legislature will not be able to override the veto since it has adjourned for the year.

The field of public health was pioneered here in Kansas, yet lawmakers continue trying to undermine the advancements that have saved lives in every corner of our state,” the governor said in vetoing the bill.

“That’s most recently evidenced by this bill, an effort by politicians in Topeka to win political points in the short-term while threatening the long-term health and safety of all Kansans and of our economy.

“There’s no question: Preventing Kansas’ local and state health officials from providing even basic testing for contagious human and zoonotic diseases – including measles, meningitis, Ebola, and polio – will hurt our ability to stop unnecessary outbreaks in the future.

Senate President Ty Masterson accused Kelly of governing from the left and said she was denying “health freedom” for Kansans and refusing to curtail “the powers of unelected bureaucrats.”

House Speaker Dan Hawkins struck a similar tone.

“As we learn from past mistakes, this bill would put the appropriate checks and balances with elected officials who answer directly to Kansas voters and return unelected health bureaucrats back into their intended advisory role,” Hawkins said.

“Kansas House Republicans believe the voice of Kansas voters is an essential part of government and will revisit this issue in the 2024 Legislative Session.”

Among other things, the bill would have:

  • Barred the state health secretary from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for any child in a day care center or a child enrolling in school for the first time.
  • Allowed the health secretary to designate infectious or contagious diseases by rules and regulations. Any rule changes would need to be reported to the House speaker and the Senate president before they were adopted.
  • Removed the authority of the health secretary to test for infectious or contagious diseases and order the isolation and quarantine of anyone infected.
  • Removed the authority of the county, joint board of health or local health officer to prohibit public gatherings for the control of infectious or contagious diseases.
  • Removed the authority of either the local health officer or state health secretary to order someone exposed to a contagious disease and has refused medical attention to be isolated or quarantined.
  • Removed the authority of either the local health officer or state health secretary to order an individual who may have been exposed to an infectious or contagious disease to seek evaluation and treatment. The local health officer would be empowered to recommend the individual seek appropriate and necessary evaluation and treatment.
  • Removed the authority of either the local health officer or state health secretary to order the isolation or quarantine of a person or group of people who may have been exposed to an infectious or contagious disease. The local health officer could recommend the person or group of people to go into isolation or quarantine.

Heather Braum, health policy adviser for Kansas Action for Children, praised the governor’s veto.

“Standard quarantine procedure is a crucial part of keeping our communities safe, but HB 2285 would have undone decades of work to mitigate dangerous contagious diseases,” Braum said in an email.

“Gov. Kelly did the right thing for the health of all Kansans by vetoing this irresponsible legislation,” Braum said.

Supporters said the bill was about personal responsibility and freedom.

“We have heard from our constituents that they don’t want either the medical officers or the secretary to overstep their bounds and close businesses again or close schools and determine what is essential and what isn’t essential,” said Republican state Rep. Beverly Gossage, chair of the Senate health committee.

“Of course, we want quarantines,” Gossage said. “We just don’t want them to overstep and overreact to something that we found didn’t make a difference.”

Republican state Rep. Kristin O’Shea of Topeka said she didn’t like the way COVID-19 was addressed by public health officials. The bill, she said, was a different matter.

“There is no doubt the way COVID was handled was overbearing and overstepping, but I don’t think this a good solution,” she said.

“That was clearly governmental overreaction,” she said. “But you don’t want the pendulum to swing so far in the other direction that there is unintended consequences.”