N.H. Lawmakers Discuss Curbing Emergency Powers Of State Health Department | New Hampshire Public Radio

N.H. Lawmakers Discuss Curbing Emergency Powers Of State Health Department

Feb 1, 2021

Credit Daniel S. Hurd via Flickr CC

A  New Hampshire House committee wants to give a legislative panel the power to overturn any emergency order issued by the state’s health commissioner.

The proposal cleared the House’s Health and Human Services Committee by a 19-2 vote Monday.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Wolfeboro Republican Rep. William Marsh, who is himself a retired physician, cited the role Nazi health officials played in the Holocaust as he introduced the bill. And he noted that emergency powers granted to the state’s health officials permit them to flout other laws. 

“I’m troubled that current law allows emergency orders in New Hampshire to supersede certain criminal laws – not that I believe our commissioner would ever do that.” Marsh told colleagues.

Several bills now before lawmakers aim to overturn or limit emergency action taken by Gov. Chris Sununu in response to the coronavirus. The bill approved Monday targets the actions by state Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette. It would require a two-thirds vote of a special legislative panel to overturn any emergency order issued by her office.

“These powers: to isolate, quarantine or control access to an exposure are designed to protect the public. Never in our lifetimes have these powers been so visible and needed,” said Patricia Tilley, the state’s deputy public health director.

Tilley also said Shibinette relied on the expertise and advice of epidemiologists and other doctors when making “complex, ethical decisions.”

But Shibinette’s decision in April to temporarily ban the prescription of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine to treat COVID-19 remains a point of friction. Both drugs were touted by former President Trump. In her order, Shibinette said she limited prescriptions to ensure patients who needed the drugs to treat conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis didn’t lose access to drugs.

But critics like Rep. Dennis Acton, a Republican from Fremont, said it crossed a line.

“The decision to ban hydroxychloroquine: a very questionable act. It appeared to be politically motivated,” Acton said.  “We definitely need some type of checks and balances on this.”

The debate over how big that check should be will likely persist as this bill moves through the State House. Prior to the committee vote, the state health department’s top lawyer stressed that, while the department would welcome legislative feedback on executive orders, this bill goes too far.

“There is a threat to this bill that would allow for orders to be overturned for essentially anything that the commissioner has responsibility for,” said Melissa St. Cyr, the health department’s chief legal officer.