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February 16. 2013 11:52PM

Public health measures would add to safety of hospital patients

The House is expected to vote this week on whether to require hospitals to tell the state health department if an employee has transmitted a "bloodborne pathogen" to a patient by "an intentional unsafe act."

House Bill 293 is one of several public-health measures lawmakers are considering in the wake of last year's hepatitis C and fungal meningitis outbreaks that were linked to health care facilities.

After the first cases of hepatitis C were reported among patients of Exeter Hospital's cardiac catheterization lab last May, thousands of patients were urged to undergo testing for the chronic liver disease. The state health department identified 32 patients as infected in the outbreak.

David Kwiatkowski, a 33-year-old former hospital employee who has hepatitis C, is awaiting federal trial for allegedly stealing painkillers and replacing them with contaminated syringes, exposing patients to the disease.

The House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee last week unanimously approved HB 293, adding what allegedly happened at Exeter Hospital to the state's Adverse Events Reporting System.

Sponsor Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, said she expects the bill will be on the consent calendar for a vote Wednesday and she expects it to pass. "I think there's just overwhelming interest in maintaining the high quality of our health care system," she said.

Among the other proposals lawmakers are taking up later this month:

-- Requiring medical technicians to register with a new state board (HB 658).

-- Requiring random drug testing of health care workers (HB 597).

Rep. Timothy Copeland, R-Stratham, sponsored both bills.

He acknowledged that simply requiring a medical technican to register here would not inform New Hampshire patients if someone has done something wrong in another state before moving here.

That's what allegedly happened in the case of former medical technician Kwiatkowski in Exeter.

"We need something nationally," Copeland said.

But it's a first step, he said. If House Bill 658 passes here, he plans to approach the state's congressional delegation to sponsor similar legislation on the federal level.

A public hearing on HB 658 will be held Thursday at 10 a.m.

As a former New York police officer, Copeland said he got used to random drug testing. He'd like to see the same applied to health care workers.

But after a recent meeting with hospital CEOs, he plans to write an amendment to House Bill 597 this weekend to address their concerns that its current language is too vague.

Still, he said, "Doctors kill more people than guns across the nation, as far as the numbers go, with mistakes.

"So if we can cut down those mistakes and cut down the human error by having people show up for work sober and alert, then maybe we'll cut down that piece," he said.

A public hearing on the drug-testing bill is set for Feb. 26.

Steve Ahnen, president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, said it will take a "multi-pronged approach" to prevent the kind of drug diversion alleged at Exeter Hospital. Since the Hepatitis C outbreak, he said, hospital officials have been meeting regularly to review best practices.

While having a state registry wouldn't solve the problem of traveling technicians who did something wrong in another state, Ahnen said, "if this serves to make New Hampshire a place that's less attractive to someone who's intent on diverting drugs, then it's a good thing."

swickham@unionleader.com


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