House Speaker Sam Smith said Thursday it's "outrageous" for doctors to suggest that Pennsylvania's new Marcellus Shale law could gag them from talking to their patients about chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process.
The Jefferson County Republican said the chemical disclosure provision of the law was pushed by environmental groups and replicates language used on the federal level for decades.
Smith released a statement a day after The Associated Press reported that some medical professionals are concerned because they will have to sign a confidentiality agreement in return for access to proprietary information on chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Some doctors, including the president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, say the provision could have a chilling effect on research and on doctors' ability to diagnose and treat patients who have been exposed.
"Doctors will be able to provide all of the information needed to discuss any patient ailment," Smith said. "It is outrageous to think, let alone for anyone to portray, that the state would actually `gag' a doctor in treating a patient. It is irresponsible for an organization to try and create such hysteria."
Smith did not name the organization but his spokesman, Steve Miskin, said Smith was referring to the Pennsylvania Medical Society. Miskin said the medical society has never approached legislative leaders with any concerns about the bill. He called the confidentiality provision a non-issue.
"It's akin to yelling fire in a crowded theater and that's what they have done," Miskin said.
A spokesman for the medical society had no immediate comment Thursday evening.
The disclosure provision, borrowed from a new Colorado regulation, requires drillers to reveal the identity and amounts of "any chemicals claimed to be a trade secret" to any health professional for treating a patient who may have been exposed. In return, the doctor must agree to hold the information in confidence.
The medical society has said the law is too vague, and that doctors will need explicit guidance on the limitations.
But Smith said the law allows companies to protect trade secrets while mandating disclosure to health professionals.
"We thought this was a good, proactive approach. Now Pennsylvania has the most progressive hydraulic fracturing disclosure law in the nation," he said. "It is designed for transparency and access, and it provides unfettered access to physicians or other medical professionals who need information to treat their patients."
The speaker's statement didn't address the other major issue raised by the AP story, the loss of research money into the potential public health impacts of drilling.
The House version of the shale bill gave the Health Department up to $2 million annually for new research, and for a statewide registry to track people with illnesses potentially related to drilling, a top agency priority.
Such a registry could reveal patterns of illness near natural gas development, provide data on any toxic exposures, and ultimately help researchers draw conclusions about drilling and public health.
But the money was stripped during last-minute negotiations between Republican leaders in the House and Senate and the administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.
Miskin said negotiators felt there could be "alternative methods" of information gathering, including reliance on county health offices and private research institutions.