Legal Hotline: Disease Prevention and Control Law

Legal Hotline: Disease Prevention and Control Law

PNA Legal Hotline

Q:  What is the Disease Prevention and Control Law? Health department officials often rely on it to deny access to various information about community health issues as well as the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

A:  The Disease Prevention and Control Law (DPCL) was passed in 1955, making state and local health departments responsible for the prevention and control of communicable and non-communicable diseases in the Commonwealth.  The law also contains a broad confidentiality provision that creates a significant barrier to accessing information about diseases impacting the community.

At its core, the DPCL requires health care providers to report instances of communicable and non-communicable diseases to state or local health departments, and in turn, health departments are charged with controlling outbreaks by the use of various actions including isolation, quarantine, and other measures intended to control disease.  We have seen this law play out very publicly during the COVID-19 crisis, but the law covers many more diseases than just the current pandemic.

Like many public health laws, the DPCL contains a robust confidentiality provision[s] intended to protect the identity of individual patients. The confidentiality provision of the law, found in section 15, states:

Confidentiality of Reports and Records.—State and local health authorities may not disclose reports of diseases, any records maintained as a result of any action taken in consequence of such reports, or any other records maintained pursuant to this act or any regulations, to any person who is not a member of the department or of a local board or department of health, except where necessary to carry out the purposes of this act. State and local health authorities may permit the use of data contained in disease reports and other records, maintained pursuant to this act, or any regulation, for research purposes, subject to strict supervision by the health authorities to insure that the use of the reports and records is limited to the specific research purposes.

The law generally prohibits disclosure of information about reports of diseases and actions taken as a result of such reports.  The law does permit health departments to release information to researchers, but it does not contain any express public access provisions or other means to provide transparency or accountability to the public impacted by disease. Embedded in the confidentiality provision is an implied discretionary release clause that allows health departments to release information “when it serves the purposes” of the law, namely prevention and control of communicable and non-communicable diseases.

Whether and how this discretion is exercised varies widely among health departments, but most often, it is not exercised at all and the DPCL is used to thwart public access to records about diseases impacting the community.  State and local health departments have relied on the DPCL to deny access to records about many types of diseases including outbreaks of salmonella, e-coli, and Legionnaire’s disease, lead poisoning in schools and amongst children, and cancer outbreaks in state prisons to name a few.  None of these denials could be overcome because the confidentiality provisions in the DPCL supersede the public access requirements of the Right to Know Law.

PNA is advocating for legislative changes to the DPCL, but in the meantime, we are advising members who request information related to disease outbreaks to illustrate both the discretionary release aspect of the law as well as the public interest that would be served by releasing information.

As always, this is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please contact private counsel or the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.