Assemblyman Robin Schimminger and Senator Mary Lou Rath announced today that they have reintroduced legislation (S.2965/A.2281) that would create a statewide public health mutual aid plan to permit local health departments to assist other local health departments in public health emergency responses such as disease surveillance, mass immunization programs, mass antibiotic distribution and handling of mass casualties, and with other health services.
The lawmakers said that they hoped to work with Governor Eliot Spitzer’s new health commissioner to build an appreciation of the importance of enacting such a plan this legislative session. Currently, county health districts or departments must enter into contracts with other counties for mutual aid in the delivery of health services, and such contracts must be approved by the legislative body of each county and the state health commissioner. This structure does not allow for the rapid response that is often vital in cases where services, personnel and/or equipment are needed quickly but the county health district or department that needs assistance has not already established a contract with the county health district or department that could help.
“In the past, there have been situations where local health departments were willing to assist other health departments in emergency response efforts, only to be handcuffed by legal obstacles,” said Senator Rath. “This legislation recognizes that as the front-line providers for these types of emergencies, our health departments need to have better tools.”
“Health emergencies can run the gamut from a flu epidemic to a terrorist attack that produces mass casualties. We have to be ready to respond immediately with needed resources coming from many directions,” said Schimminger. “A statewide public health mutual aid plan, as established in this legislation, will ensure that responses to public health emergencies are not impeded by the absence of a prior contract for mutual assistance.”
The legislation sets forth specific provisions regarding reimbursement for services and liability concerns. Specifically, the municipality receiving mutual aid assistance shall reimburse the costs of the municipality providing assistance and no county or its officers or employees rendering aid in another county shall be liable for any act or omission in good faith while rendering services; however, good faith shall not include willful misconduct, gross negligence or recklessness.
“A quick response is key to containing a disease epidemic or aiding victims of natural or manmade disasters. Combining emergency resources is smart and cost-effective, and this change in the law is needed to facilitate the process,” Schimminger said.
“By providing health officials with the ability to pool resources with nearby localities,” Rath said, “this measure will help to improve health response capabilities, save lives, reduce costs and improve efficiency.”