Disaster Preparedness Visits the Capitol, or Passing a Bill Where Everyone Gets to Wear a White Hat

Disaster Preparedness Visits the Capitol, or Passing a Bill Where Everyone Gets to Wear a White Hat

Frederick W. Nolting, D.D.S*:

Through contacts at the American Medical Association National Disaster Life Support Educational Consortium (NDLSEC), I was made aware of a nationwide initiative to give liability protection to businesses and non-profits. This initiative began and was organized at the University of North Carolina. It was surprising to learn that in many states groups volunteering to help in declared disasters were open to lawsuits when acting in good faith. For example, the American Red Cross could have been sued in any disaster here in Minnesota. Early in 2009, the Minnesota legislature enacted a law that granted Liability Protection Immunity to businesses and non-profits during mass vaccination clinics at the point of distribution. In all other disasters, non-profits and businesses were on their own.

The goal was for Minnesota to extend liability protection to these groups during all declared disasters. To begin, I copied all the information on the University of North Carolina web site that pertained to the issue. I found a section called “Kit for Lawmakers”. It gave a complete program to pass a bill, including sample letters of support, a list of stakeholders, sample bill language, an executive summary of the issue, and contact information for the organizers of the initiative. I placed a telephone call to Gene Matthews, who was the head of the initiative, for his advice on how to proceed.

Preparation: If It Is to Be, It Is Up To Me
Beginning last August, my first task was to make a small information packet with just the essentials to present to legislators for their consideration to be authors of a bill. This was simple, as the “Kit for Lawmakers” had nearly everything I needed. The only problem was that this type of legislation is called “Good Samaritan” legislation across the nation, and here in Minnesota it is “liability protection during a declared disaster”. Change in wording was required.

Finding House and Senate members to author the bills was next. I approached Representative Kim Norton, as she was familiar with our organization and a very successful working relationship during the past two years had been established. She agreed to carry the bill in the House. In the Senate, the most logical choice was Senator Dave Senjem. Senator Senjem had worked in emergency planning for Mayo Clinic and had chaired the Minnesota Emergency Response Commission. He also agreed to author the bill in the Senate. This was accomplished by September.

In September, Representative Norton contacted the House of Representatives’ research department and had one of the legislative analysts draft a bill. The analyst reported back with the draft bill and a report which included current law, an analysis of current law with its present limitations, and a copy of the specific section of the statute. This draft was submitted as the House bill and forwarded to Senator Senjem. He submitted this as the Senate bill.

During the next three months I spent time building a coalition of stakeholders. The “Kit for Lawmakers” had a large list of groups that had signed on supporting the initiative. These were national level groups. I contacted them to find the people from their organizations who were based in Minnesota. In turn, the Minnesota people were contacted. Even though the national counterparts to these groups approved the initiative, each of their Minnesota chapters had to review the information and the language of the bill before they could approve their support. Beginning this process in October was none too soon. September would have been better. Any time after Thanksgiving would have been too late.

Trials and ( Some) Tribulations
In January, Representatives Joe Adkins and Leon Lillie, Chair and Co-chair of the House Commerce Committee, were in Rochester to head a panel, including our local legislators, to review issues that were to come before the legislature during this session. Representative Norton suggested that I present the issue and the bill to the panel. Although not likely to be heard by their Committee, they could become allies later on. Both were interested and appeared supportive of the initiative.

Both bills were introduced in the first weeks of the session, and referred to the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, and the Civil Justice Committee in the House. At our January Southeastern District Dental Society meeting, I was told that discussion of the Liability Protection bills had occurred at our Legislative Committee the week before and that they were, very likely, “dead on arrival”. This was surprising, disappointing, and enlightening all at the same time. It was time to contact all of the coalition members, and both legislators, to explore this opinion.

During the middle weeks of February, I gathered opinions from the stakeholders. They were supportive. As a number of us had surmised, the Trial Attorneys were definitely not in favor of this legislation. The chair of the Civil Justice Committee, an attorney, stated to Representative Norton that he would not hear the bill. This development was not a death blow, but would make passage more difficult.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome
In the second week of February, the most fortunate conference call occurred. Aggie Liethieser, Assistant Commissioner of Public Health; Kris Eide, Director of Homeland Security; and Steve Shakman (who has been the architect of disaster preparedness law in Minnesota from the beginning), and I had a conversation about the bill. The manner in which it was written and all that was included made it unacceptable. Specifically, the clause granting immunity for preparation for a disaster would be too much for some groups to accept. Steve stated that the fix could be accomplished in a few sentences, and that change would simplify, streamline, and make the bill more appealing to all groups. I asked him if he would help out and make those changes. He agreed, and by noon the next day the new language was in my e-mail. I forwarded the new language to Senator Senjem and Representative Norton for their review. They accepted the changes, and Senator Senjem promptly asked for a hearing. A hearing was granted during the first week of March.

The Show
The first hearing was in the State Capital Building, Room 15. This is the hearing room that is on the “Tour”. It seated more than 150 people, and had a large North Star skylight in the center of the room. There was a small desk and two or three chairs for the Senate authors and those testifying. The Committee members were seated in a semi-circle opposite the small desk. The scene reminded me of the Enron hearings.

I was asked to testify along with Vic Moore from the American Red Cross. Aggie Leitheiser, Kris Eide, and Steve Shakman were present and said they would also testify if needed. MDA lobbyist Tom Day checked with me to see if I needed anything from him.

The bill being heard before ours involved changing the penalty for a certain crime. The testifying attorney was grilled by the members for about 40 minutes. After he was sliced and diced and a stake driven through his heart, the senator sponsoring that bill asked to have the bill tabled until such time as it could be modified.

Then it was our turn. Senator Senjem introduced the bill and the new language. I described the basics of the bill, and the Chair asked for questions. A discussion ensued around the registration of groups. The result was the addition of two words. I took the opportunity to glance back at Steve Shakman to see if the addition was okay. He nodded, and the Chair asked Senator Senjem if the additions were acceptable. He agreed to the change, and the bill was passed.

The next hearing occurred the following week in the Senate’s State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee. The same group of supporters was present, as well as representatives from the Office of Emergency Preparedness.

The second hearing lasted about three-and-a-half minutes. The bill was passed by the Committee and forwarded to the floor of the Senate for a second reading.

A few days later, Representative Norton emailed me that the House version was to be heard by the Civil Justice Committee. Apparently the House leadership had seen the bill sail through the Senate and strongly encouraged the Committee chair to hear the bill. At the hearing, Representative Norton introduced the new language as amended by the Senate, which then became the new version of the House bill. I again explained the basics of the bill, and Vic Moore testified that The American Red Cross supported it. The bill passed Committee and was forwarded to the floor of the House.

The Vote
Three days after the Civil Justice hearing, the House of Representatives read and passed the bill by a vote of 134-0! The passed bill was forwarded to the Senate. A week after the House vote, Senator Lynch added her name as an author to the now combined bill. Quite a surprise, as the Senator and I had been at odds for two years over the ADHP issue. The Senate vote was an astounding 66-1! The bill was forwarded to the Governor’s office, and Governor Pawlenty signed the bill into law.

Do a Good Turn Daily
The accomplishment of this goal was indeed satisfying. The greatest satisfaction came with the knowledge that we had done something to help people who have been struck by tragedy and that help will go on for many years during every day of every disaster.

The Truth
The process of passing an idea into law was quite an adventure and an education. My contribution consisted of bringing forward a great idea with good intentions, and showing plenty of chutzpah. Representative Norton, Senator Senjem, Steve Shakman, Committee counsels, and the rest of the supporters provided the guidance and expertise to move the idea into a workable bill that became law. Cynics will say that we got lucky. Others would say that our hard work made the good luck. The truth is that we all worked hard, but the combination of timing and the talented people who put the welfare of others at the fore became a force that could only be accurately described as providential.


*Frederick W. Nolting, D.D.S. is Chair of the Minnesota Dental Association Disaster Preparedness Subcommittee. He is a general dentist in private practice in Byron, Minnesota