This article is #21 in the Citizen Jane series.
Law reviewed: RCW 70, Public Health and Safety
BY JAMIE HENNEMAN
Online News Editor
Do you know who the Washington State otologist is? No? Well apparently neither does anyone else because this position, created by the legislature in 1945 and affirmed as a needed position in 1991, has never been held by a living person.
According to RCW 70.50.010 the state otologist needs to be “skilled in diagnosis of diseases of the ear and defects in hearing, especially for school children with an impaired sense of hearing.” The state was directed to “fix the salary of the otologist in a sum not exceeding the salary of the secretary (of health.)” However, said otologist was not hired, nor was the position ever funded. The responsibility to conduct hearing tests for school children was eventually transferred to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In fact, the State Department of Health even recommended that the “otologist” RCW be repealed in 2001 but nothing was done.
This law, and many like it in the “Public Health and Safety” RCWs was clearly a knee-jerk reaction to a temporary surge of public concern or a very active lobbyist.
These kind of laws affirm the modern fable that the legislature is there to address our every social concern. In truth, people who want government to do everything for them should have to sign the “Declaration of Dependence” in letters bold enough to shame John Hancock, as they cannot think of other legitimate ways to address their problems. And, as we can see, legislative action does not mean concerns are actually addressed. Reading through the laws regarding public health and safety I found that, at least initially, the laws took a bent we could expect: awareness and quarantine.
If a local municipality suffered Asiatic Cholera, Yellow Fever, Small Pox, Diptheria, Typhus, Bubonic Plague or other communicable, potentially lethal diseases the local health official would alert the local sheriff and a quarantine would be instated. It was an approach that realized life is full of unfortunate events that cannot always be prevented.
However, as vaccines put some of those malevolent diseases at bay, our thinking about public health began to shift towards prevention through laws that advocated testing and education.
It also placed a new infallible status on physicians and their advice, as illustrated in RCW 70.28.033 that made it a misdemeanor for a Tuberculosis patient not to follow the treatment/isolation recommendations from a physician. In the 1980s with an escalation in AIDS, the state also took particular interest in sex education and laws were created including making it a gross misdemeanor for a sexual partner not to alert another of a sexually transmitted disease (70.24.022), and requiring that AIDS info be distributed to drug offenders and prostitutes (70.24.350). We also permitted school aged children to be given information on sexually transmitted diseases, even finding it to be a “unique and appropriate setting” for the discussion, according to the RCW language.
A few years later the state then took “public health” laws to a new level in the mid-1990s with taxpayer subsidized healthcare coverage for low-income individuals via the Basic Health plan. So in the span of 70 years we went from only responding to disease scourges when police force was needed for quarantines to having a nanny healthcare system in place. But even this was not enough.
In recent years our laws regarding infectious disease have supposedly become more preemptive as we have passed a whole section related to a possible pandemic of influenza. RCW 70.26 requires local health districts to have a plan in place should a pandemic occur.
As the power of the state has continued to grow in regards to public health, it seems we have an ill-placed confidence in preparation, as if all maladies and misfortunes can be prevented by regulation and planning. That premise denies that we live in a world where irrational, unpredictable things occur and encourages individuals to put their confidence in the state. What is lacking here is not only an absence of responsibility for ourselves and our health, but a reliance on the state as a kind of god. When calamity befalls many people ask “where is the government?” and consider that a rational question.
This mindset is crippling because if believed en masse, the gateway is opened to a control state. If no one is willing to solve their health problems at a personal and local level we are setting ourselves up for tyranny.
When people can be convinced something as personal as their own health is the government’s responsibility, they are ready to abandon all other autonomy to any government who pledges to solve their problems.
The RCWs that address illness highlight an illness all by themselves: the illness of a hollow society, broken families and entitlement-driven people who have forgotten the cure lies in taking personal responsibility for ourselves and our families. We are responsible to network with our neighbors, nurture relationships in our communities and care for the welfare of others.
While we cannot prevent all illnesses or stave off all plagues, we are not helpless to deal with these things when they do occur and we do not need a mega-government to save us. It may be a hard pill to swallow these days, but the truth always is.