ANNAPOLIS – Fearing the specter of citizens legally snooping through each other’s medical files, opponents of a communicable disease information access bill had the proposal amended before it was heard this week.
Phillip D. Bissett, R-Anne Arundel, sponsored the bill, which originally would have allowed public access to communicable disease records for a variety of reasons.
He narrowed its scope before testifying in front of the House Environmental Matters Committee late Wednesday.
“When we amended to limit it just to food poisoning,” Bissett said, “there is no opposition. Food poisoning. That’s it.”
Bissett authored the original bill at the urging of his local health officer. The bill would have allowed people who could prove they had an interest in such matters — for court proceedings, government use or statistical or educational purposes — to ask the Health and Mental Hygiene secretary for permission to inspect medical records.
That permission would have entitled the citizen to inspect private physicians’ records, as long as the disease of interest was among those the state requires to be reported to the health department.
While the bill’s language limited inspections to records that did not name or otherwise identify a person, opponents still had concerns for patients’ privacy.
Of those originally opposed, only Melinda Moree of the AIDS Legislative Committee testified Wednesday, and she let it be known she had changed her mind.
“If [food poisoning] is the only part of the bill that stays in, that’s fine,” Moree said.
Moree was reassured by conversations she and other lobbyists had with Bissett about changing the bill.
But she remained cautious, given that the amendments were agreed to, but not yet written into the bill. “Of course, you always have to wait and see exactly what it says,” Moree said.
Anne Arundel Health Officer Frances B. Phillips supported the amended bill.
She said in an average year her office receives about 100 food related complaints, about seven percent of which are confirmed as food poisoning. If two or more persons suffer from a common food cause, an investigation is held.
Phillips pointed out that the bill contains necessary protection against premature release of information.
“Names of food service establishments would only be released after the investigation is completed and a conclusion is reached,” Phillips said.
The committee also heard testimony on a bill allowing the state health secretary to name, by regulation, the diseases that must be reported by medical labs to county health officials. Currently, those diseases are named by the lawmakers themselves.
Diane Matuszak of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that letting lawmakers decide was inefficient because it takes too long. “We’re always behind in terms of tracking,” Matuszak said.
Under the bill, 15 specified diseases would have to be reported within 48 hours of discovery, including: HIV, chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis (types A and B). Susan Milner, public affairs director of Planned Parenthood of Washington, opposed the bill out of concern for the anonymity of persons with HIV. -30-