Kansas Senate Introduces Bill to Limit Health Officers’ Authority Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

TOPEKA, Kan. – The Kansas Senate is once again attempting to revise public health laws in response to criticism of the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, a bill to remove health officers’ authority to issue orders was passed, as was a bill guaranteeing visitation access to hospitalized family members. However, neither bill had enough votes to override a potential veto.

In November 2021, backlash against the pandemic response prompted Republicans to call the state’s first special legislative session, leading to the passage of a bill targeting employer vaccine mandates. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly signed the bill into law, stating that she wanted to “get it over with and move on.”

Despite this, many Republicans expressed the intention to continue pursuing public health legislation. Their efforts in the 2022 and 2023 sessions were unsuccessful but have been revived in 2024. Senator Mike Thompson, a Republican from Shawnee, expressed concerns about the lessons learned from the pandemic and emphasized the importance of protecting individual rights.

One of the bills currently under consideration is Senate Bill 391, also known as the “Constitutional Right to Health Freedom Act.” This bill aims to limit the authority of public health officers to quarantine and isolate individuals suspected or confirmed to have a disease. It has passed the Senate but still requires approval from the House.

Another bill, Senate Bill 352, called the “John D. Springer Patient’s Bill of Rights,” seeks to ensure in-person visitation rights in medical care facilities. Supporters argue that it prioritizes individuals’ rights and prevents unnecessary policies from interfering with their access to care. This bill also passed the Senate but fell one vote short of a supermajority.

Critics of these bills, including Senator Cindy Holscher, a Democrat from Overland Park, warn of the potential consequences of limiting the authority of public health officers. They argue that without these measures, disease outbreaks could escalate and result in greater public health costs. Holscher cited a previous measles outbreak and the projected impact of not implementing isolation and quarantine measures.

As the bills move forward, concerns have been raised by organizations such as the Kansas Hospital Association and the Kansas Medical Society. They worry about unintended consequences as well as potential conflicts with federal regulations. Senator Kristen O’Shea, a Republican from Topeka, also raised concerns about the potential loss of federal funding if hospitals do not comply with Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services infection control requirements.

Overall, the debate over public health legislation in Kansas continues to intensify as lawmakers grapple with striking a balance between individual rights and public health measures. The fate of these bills will depend on further legislative action and potential compromises between different stakeholders.