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MEHPA: The bureaucratic monster that still lives

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted January 27, 2003

A coalition of conservatives and other privacy activists have succeeded in blowing the whistle on the dictatorial powers contained within the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, model legislation that is being pushed on the states by the Department of Health & Human Services. But this is a battle that has yet to be won and some of the biggest tests for the grassroots defenders of our constitutional liberties are yet to come. MEHPA has absorbed setbacks in a number of state legislatures, but it can die and then come back to life two years later given the reality of the law-making processes in state legislatures.

Because that is the case, it is important to remind the grassroots that the fight to protect our constitutional liberties is taking place not just in the corridors of Congress and Federal agencies and departments. Your state legislature can do just as much harm to your freedom and right to privacy if it votes to implement MEHPA.

To refresh your memory, MEHPA became the cause du jour for the lobbies that like 'command and control' policies that -- coincidentally -- just happen to put them in charge over the lives of you and your family. Not surprisingly, MEHPA's number one proponent and author is Lawrence O. Gostin, former member of the Clinton health care task force.

America was spared that Frankenstein monster of a health care plan -- at least temporarily -- but Gostin remains undeterred in his quest to find ways to vest bureaucrats with more power. MEHPA's combination of deliberately vague definitions of emergencies and the very specific powers that would be granted to health care bureaucrats in the event of such emergencies had the potential to allow the Left to accomplish highly prized items of its agenda through the backdoor. Because conservatives sounded the alarm, Gostin redrew MEHPA to make it appear less threatening to civil liberties.

One of the most important things activists need to do in their state is to make sure the definition of emergency adequately defines the circumstances that will truly be catastrophic. For instance, in Maryland, activists helped persuade the legislature to require the governor to declare a "catastrophic health emergency" only if there is an imminent threat of significant loss of life or disability caused by exposure to anthrax, ebola, plague, smallpox, poisonous gases, or deadly radiation.

That is certainly a more reasonable and precise definition than what was in the original MEHPA. Several other states placed strict sunset provisions on the legislation. Activists should be sure the MEHPA bill in their state vests strong oversight powers with the state legislature, something that was obviously of little concern to Gostin and his followers when drawing up the
original MEHPA.

The early version of the MEHPA model bill, thanks to its vague wording, would have granted governors the power to declare such emergencies to counter an "epidemic" of violence or obesity. If Gostin was able to have his original wish, your state's governor would have had the power to seize your favorite candy bar or the Civil War rifle that is a family heirloom.

An aroused citizenry outraged at the efforts to foist on us this legislation that would be hazardous to our civil liberties helped to scuttle bills in the following states over the past year: Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Connecticut.

But this battle is an ongoing one and MEHPA will be considered in many states this year and could easily resurface in those states mentioned above that either shelved or defeated MEHPA. States with MEHPA laws on the books, particularly if they were improved over the Gostin-favored version, are at risk of having the legislation amended to give the bureaucrats what they want.

Now that activists have succeeded in sounding the alarm about the power grab instituted by Gostin, HHS, and the organizations that promote their authority at the expense of our freedom and liberty, I worry that we will let down our guard.

Now is not the time to give up the fight in the belief that the tide has turned. The Left never expected the passionate opposition that MEHPA generated. Now they know. Count on the Left's medical-bureaucratic complex to keep pushing and promoting MEHPA as important to protecting the public's health, using modified versions that are more carefully worded but can have the same adverse impact on our constitutional liberties as the original model bill.

It's also important to realize that safe and sane alternatives to MEHPA are being promoted by organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council. These plans will not abuse our freedom and will truly protect the public's health in the event that a real medical emergency occurs.

We caught the Left's medical-bureaucratic complex red-handed in attempting their legislative coups and shook them up. But grassroots conservative and privacy activists and anyone else who values freedom and liberty should not think this battle is over by any stretch. The fight continues....and it will be fought in your state capitol soon.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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