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Bill to require hospital workers to get drug tests criticized

State House Bureau

February 26. 2013 6:55PM

CONCORD - A bill requiring health care workers to be randomly drug tested four times a year is not the answer to preventing the kind of drug diversion alleged at Exeter Hospital last summer, a House committee was told Tuesday.

Nursing home operators, a physician, the state Hospital Association and the state American Civil Liberties Union all criticized the bill as expensive and government overreach, while the lone supporter of House Bill 597 was the president of a drug testing company.

HB 597 is one of several measures lawmakers are considering in the wake of last year's hepatitis C outbreak at Exeter Hospital, which infected 32 patients.

David Kwiatkowski, a former hospital employee who has hepatitis C, was charged with allegedly stealing painkillers and replacing them with contaminated syringes, exposing patients to the disease.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Timothy Copeland, R-Stratham, is working with a steering committee of the state's health care leaders to change the bill's requirements to address many of the concerns raised by those testifying Tuesday. The amendment will have a public hearing March 5 at 1 p.m. before the Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee.

Much of the concern over the bill is the cost of testing all health care workers, which the owner of a small New Ipswich nursing home said would cost 1 percent of his income.

Cary Cahoon, owner of Friendship Manor and the vice president of state Association of Residential Care Homes, said the bill as written is too vague and would cost him about $5,700 a year to test his 13 workers.

"This bill would place a heavy burden on some providers," Cahoon told the committee. "(You don't know) how close the line some of the smaller homes are operating."

The state Hospital Association worked with the state Medical Society to put together the steering committee after the Exeter incident to discuss what could be done to prevent another occurrence, said Hospital Association president Steve Ahnen.

"What became abundantly clear to us is that there is no single solution to this challenge," he said. "It requires a multi-pronged, collaborative approach among health care providers, regulators, law enforcement and others."

He said while legislation or regulatory changes may be needed, but providers can also act on their own to adhere to best practices for handling and securing controlled drugs.

Ahnen said the association has not taken an official position on the bill as yet and would be sharing the proposed amendment with its members.

"No institution or individual provider wants to see the events that unfolded here last summer ever happen again," Ahnen said. "No one measure alone can solve this problem, be it drug testing or anything else, but on behalf of the patients and communities we serve, we simply have to consider the most appropriate measures to prevent these types of tragedies from occurring again."

The state ACLU called the drug testing invasive and said it raises constitutional concerns because drug testing is a search.

Devon Chaffee, state ACLU executive director, said there is no empirical evidence random drug testing works to prevent the kind of outbreak that happened at Exeter Hospital.

She said the bill lacks any system for appeals of findings or due process protections. Because drug tests are searches, an individual has to be suspected of drug abuse before tests are done, she noted.

"(Random drug tests) are an invasion of privacy," Chaffee told the committee. "They raise a serious constitutional question."

Representatives of public and private nursing homes noted they have significant systems in place including criminal background checks for New Hampshire violations and drug tests before someone is hired.

John Poirier, president of the state Health Care Association, said drug testing the nearly 15,000 health care workers in the state would cost about $2.6 million.

But Ryan Quintal, president of Occupational Drug Testing, LLC, urged the committee to approve the bill. "In health care, individuals with problem of drug abuse and addiction cannot be ignored," he told the committee.

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