Republican Gas Law Violates Medical Ethics

Leading Public Health Official Says Impact Fee Law Violates Medical Ethics

February 16, 2012 | 12:02 PM
BySusan Phillips
Scott LaMar / WITF

Pennsylvania’s Capi­tol

Pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­als say the impact fee law signed by Gov­er­nor Cor­bett this week could hurt the deliv­ery of health ser­vices to injured work­ers or res­i­dents liv­ing near gas drilling sites. The leg­is­la­tion allows drillers to with­hold infor­ma­tion on the chem­i­cals used to frack nat­ural gas wells if the com­pany deems them pro­pri­etary, or a trade secret. This would include the chemical’s iden­tity and the con­cen­tra­tion level.

A pro­vi­sion does allow health providers access to the infor­ma­tion in order to treat a patient, but requires the health­care worker to sign a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment, that oblig­ates the med­ical pro­fes­sional to use the infor­ma­tion only to treat an indi­vid­ual patient. Dr. Jerome Paul­son, Pro­fes­sor of Pedi­atrics & Pub­lic Health at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity, says the law runs counter to med­ical ethics.

“All of the oaths (of the med­ical pro­fes­sion) require us to work for the good of the pub­lic in addi­tion to the indi­vid­ual patients,” said Paul­son in a phone inter­view. “So block­ing our abil­ity to col­lect and share infor­ma­tion, or make the col­lec­tion and shar­ing of infor­ma­tion more cum­ber­some, means we wont be able to ful­fill our responsibilities.”

In an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion, the law pro­vides that the health provider would have to give a ver­bal con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment up front, and a writ­ten state­ment later.

“If a health pro­fes­sional deter­mines that a med­ical emer­gency exists and the spe­cific iden­tity and amount of any chem­i­cals claimed to be a trade secret or con­fi­den­tial pro­pri­etary infor­ma­tion are nec­es­sary for emer­gency treat­ment, the ven­dor, ser­vice provider or oper­a­tor shall imme­di­ately dis­close the infor­ma­tion to the health pro­fes­sional upon a ver­bal acknowl­edg­ment by the health pro­fes­sional that the infor­ma­tion may not be used for pur­poses other than the health needs asserted and that the health pro­fes­sional shall main­tain the infor­ma­tion as con­fi­den­tial. The ven­dor, ser­vice provider or oper­a­tor may request, and the health pro­fes­sional shall pro­vide upon request, a writ­ten state­ment of need and a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment from the health pro­fes­sional as soon as cir­cum­stances per­mit, in con­for­mance with reg­u­la­tions pro­mul­gated under this chapter.”

Pub­lic health offi­cials also object to aspects of the law that do not require a drilling com­pany, or any of its sub­con­trac­tors to dis­close chem­i­cals or con­t­a­m­i­nants that occur nat­u­rally deep within the for­ma­tion and may end up in waste water as a result of drilling. Heavy met­als and radioac­tive mate­ri­als are often released as part of the frack­ing process and are present in the flow-back fluid. The law also exempts com­pa­nies from reveal­ing any­thing that may have resulted from a chem­i­cal reac­tion between sev­eral frack­ing ingredients.

In a let­ter sent out to his pub­lic health col­leagues in Penn­syl­va­nia, Dr. Paul­son, who is also the med­ical direc­tor for National & Global Affairs, Child Health Advo­cacy Insti­tute and the direc­tor for the Mid-Atlantic Cen­ter for Children’s Health & the Envi­ron­ment at the Children’s National Med­ical Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., also raised red flags about research that could lead to prevention.

“This leg­is­la­tion would block health care pro­fes­sion­als and pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­als from col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion is (sic) a timely fash­ion to treat work­ers or oth­ers who may have been exposed to haz­ardous chem­i­cals and from gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion about pub­lic health haz­ards,” wrote Paulson.

He also urged his med­ical col­leagues across the state to speak out against the new law.

“There is no med­ical or pub­lic health ratio­nal for impos­ing these cum­ber­some and time con­sum­ing restric­tions; and, con­versely, there is every med­ical and pub­lic health rea­son for mak­ing this infor­ma­tion avail­able to med­ical per­son­nel and the gen­eral public.”

Paul­son says regard­less of views on nat­ural gas extrac­tion, he believes that in the long run, the restric­tions placed on med­ical pro­fes­sion­als could result in “severe, adverse con­se­quences,” which will likely be chal­lenged in court.

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