CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Representatives from the health care industry said Tuesday they have a vested interest in stopping employees from stealing controlled substances but a bill being considered by New Hampshire lawmakers to drug test their workers is too vague.
The proposal is part of the legislative response to a recent scandal at Exeter Hospital, where an employee allegedly stole drugs and replaced them with Hepatitis C infected syringes later used on patients.
Chief among industry concerns aired at a legislative hearing are the definition of a health care worker and who would pay for the drug tests — specifics not included in the one-page bill.
At the House Committee on Health Human Services and Elderly Affairs hearing there was a tense exchange between Gary Cahoon, operator of an assisted living facility in New Ipswich and Rep. Patrick Culbert, R-Pelham, over how to define a health care worker.
"It surely isn't kitchen help," Culbert said, sounding agitated.
The bill would require all health care workers be randomly drug tested four times per year. Its sponsor, Rep. Tim Copeland, R-Stratham, was not present to answer questions.
In the 28 years he's worked at the assisted living home, Cahoon said he's seen close to a half-dozen cases of employees stealing drugs and acknowledged such cases are increasing. But he estimated if he had to pay for drug testing all 15 of his employees it would cost him one percent of his total profits — a heavy burden during tight financial times.
Betsy Miller, with the New Hampshire Association of Counties, said a recent case at Merrimack County Nursing Home, where a contracted employee allegedly tried to steal liquid pain medication, drives home the need for such legislation, but without specifics she can't support the bill.
Miller added there is already a system for testing workers that give employers probable cause, such as showing signs of intoxication on the job. Devon Chaffee, with The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, said drug testing without probable cause could violate worker's constitutional rights.
Steve Ahnen, President of the New Hampshire Hospital Association, said his group is not taking a position on the legislation, but thanked lawmakers for working to address the issue.
"(This bill) is a measure that was introduced in the wake of the tragic events that occurred last summer," he said, referring to the Hepatitis C outbreak at Exeter Hospital, "I just want to comment about what an awful and horrific situation that was and is for those patients their families and their caregivers."
David Kwiatkowski, a traveling medical worker whom prosecutors describe as a "serial infector," was hired in Exeter in April 2011 after working in 18 hospitals in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. Thirty-two Exeter Hospital patients have been found to have the same strain of the liver-destroying virus Kwiatkowski carries.
Rep. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, a physician at Exeter hospital who serves on the hospital associations steering committee, said the bill was written prior to the hospital association developing recommendations in order to meet the filing deadline. He added it will likely be amended before the House committee votes on it.