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It was a small item at the bottom of a long article on emergency legal preparedness in the June 2005 issue of Health Lawyer, a publication of the ABA Section of Health Law, but it caught David J. Massa’s eye.

An editor’s note said lawyers interested in setting up public health emergency-preparedness workshops in their areas should contact Hal Katz, chair of the section’s Public Health and Policy Committee.

“I thought, ‘I can do that,’ ” recalls Massa, a lawyer in St. Louis whose ABA entity memberships include the Health Law Section.

Massa followed through, and by May, he was chairing a two-day conference that drew 94 participants, including federal, state and local health authorities, and representatives from bar associations in Missouri, Illinois and Kansas.

Workshops like Massa’s program in St. Louis are “the first tangible results of the partnership launched in 2004 between the ABA and the CDC,” says Health Law Section chair Gregory L. Pemberton of Indianapolis.

The partnership dates to August 2004, when the ABA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced they would work together to strengthen the nation’s legal preparedness for responding to public health emergencies, including bioterrorism and disease outbreaks.

Since then, the partners have had plenty to contend with. In 2005, hurricanes Rita, Katrina and Wilma pounded the Gulf Coast region. Meanwhile, avian flu has continued to spread among bird populations in much of the world, raising fears of a pandemic if it jumps to the human population in a form that can easily be spread. The possibility of bioterrorism also continues to loom.

ADDRESSING LOCAL CONCERNS

In the face of such threats, more than 1,000 law­yers across the United States already have participated in what are being called community public health legal-preparedness workshops, most recently in St. Louis and Indianapolis.

The CDC provides a workshop guide to help lawyers set up local organizing committees, select speakers and develop curricula based on local public-emergency laws. But the format is deliberately flexible to allow communities to adapt the workshops to local concerns and issues.

(For more information, contact Montrece Ransom, who coordinates the initiative for the CDC, by e-mail at mransom@cdc.gov.)

“We’ve been very successful in tailoring these workshops to meet unique needs,” says Pemberton. The St. Louis conference, for instance, focused on cross-boundary issues since St. Louis and Kansas City—Missouri’s two largest metropolitan areas—stretch across state lines. The program also addressed how to better coordinate responses by government bodies and private groups.

In Indianapolis, program participants tested current local emergency plans against the hypothetical scenario of an avian flu outbreak brought to the area by an overseas traveler.

“This forced people to think about interstate travel, quarantines, isolation, local health laws and how they would interact—not only with local agencies, but with state and federal agencies like the CDC and Health and Human Services,” says Priscilla D. Keith, general counsel for the Health and Hospital Corp. of Marion County, Ind., and a vice-chair of the ABA Health Law Section’s Public Health and Policy Committee, which organized the event.

Chad Priest, an Indianapolis health care lawyer, found the pairing of federal authorities with local authorities par­ticularly effective. “We had the CDC framing the issues for us and giving us a bird’s-eye view, which dovetailed nicely with local experts who were able to put the issues in the context of our local laws and practice,” he says.

Pemberton says more private health care attorneys need to hear these messages. There is widespread thinking, he says, that, “in an emergency, the government is going to show up at your door in a white van and fix it.” The reality, he says, is that much of the response will fall on the private sector.

“What it really is all about,” says Pemberton, “is getting the local bar and local public health officials together to think about what is important to us in our communities.”

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