ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania's top health official has assured doctors that a new gas-drilling law will allow them to talk to their patients about proprietary chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process - and share the information with public health agencies and regulatory bodies as they see fit.
More than two months after the Pennsylvania Medical Society first expressed its concerns, Health Secretary Dr. Eli Avila clarified a provision of the new law that requires doctors to sign a nondisclosure agreement in return for access to secret information on fracking chemicals. A Senate Democrat who is trying to kill the confidentiality requirement said Avila's assurances are meaningless because they do not reflect what the law actually says.
The Associated Press reported last week that doctors - including the medical society's president - worried the confidentiality provision was too vague, and that it could limit research into the public health impacts of gas drilling and doctors' ability to diagnose and treat patients exposed to carcinogens and other toxic substances in fracking chemicals. Some likened it to a gag order.
A day after the AP report, House Speaker Sam Smith called the doctors' assertions about the chemical disclosure provision "outrageous" and "irresponsible." Smith pointed out that it was pushed by environmental groups and replicates language used on the federal level for decades.
Avila said the law is meant to give doctors explicit access to information off-limits to the general public. In an April 17 letter to the medical society's president, Dr. Marilyn Heine, he also clarified the extent to which doctors can share with others.
"Inherent in (physicians') right to receive this information is the ability to share the information with the patient, with other physicians, and providers including specialists assisting and involved with the care of the patient. Further, reporting and information sharing with public health and regulatory agencies such as the Department of Health is necessary and permitted," Avila wrote. "In short, the information can be utilized in whatever manner is necessary to respond to the "medical needs asserted' by the health care professional."
Heine, who had been critical of the law for weeks, reversed course after getting Avila's letter.
In a prepared statement, Heine said she is "gratified by the strong public assurances" from Smith and Avila, and that she applauds the Corbett administration and lawmakers for "their concern for public safety."
Heine later told the AP that "the lines of communication are open" between the medical society and state leaders on the issue.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from Montgomery County, questioned the medical society's sudden change of heart and said the law remains unacceptably ambiguous. He introduced legislation this week that would eliminate the requirement that doctors sign a confidentiality agreement in return for companies' trade secrets.
"The problem is Dr. Avila's statement is not binding on anybody," Leach said. "He has no legal authority to issue statements that are binding on a court in any way."
The new law, the most sweeping update to Pennsylvania's oil and gas law in a quarter century, took effect last weekend. It includes a new "impact fee" on gas drillers, stronger environmental protections, and online public disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, the technique that uses water, sand and chemicals to stimulate gas production in deep shale deposits. The public disclosure requirement includes an exemption for chemical formulas claimed to be proprietary, but gives doctors the right to obtain secret information to treat sick patients.
Adam M. Finkel, who directs the University of Pennsylvania's Program on Regulation, had previously called the bill "an ominous piece of work." He said Avila's comments are "a big step in the right direction" and that he believes the Health Department will issue guidelines based on the letter to the medical society. But he said Avila didn't answer all questions about the bill, such as whether a doctor could alert the general public about a health threat.
Avila, meanwhile, remained mum on the loss of up to $2 million in new Health Department funding.
The AP reported last week on last-minute negotiations that stripped money for research on the public health impacts of gas drilling. The money, to have come from the impact fee in Act 13, would have paid for a first-of-its-kind statewide health registry to track people with illnesses potentially related to drilling. Avila said last summer that a registry was his top priority, and public health advocates say more study is needed.
Avila's statement to the medical society did not address the loss of the money. A Health Department spokeswoman said Avila was unavailable to comment Thursday.
Associated Press writer Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh contributed to this story.