ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s Health Care Access and Cost Commission collects medical information from patients and compiles it into a database to determine costs of health care services. Some doctors want the patients to be asked first.
On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union, physicians’ groups and privacy advocates from around the state rallied in support of their cause: a bill heard by the Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. George Della, D-Baltimore County, introduced the measure, which would exclude a patient’s birthday, social security number and last two zip code digits. In addition, the bill states that information cannot be collected without the knowledge and consent of the patient.
Opponents include the Health Care Access and Cost Commission, the Maryland Health Care Coalition, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and a few other government agencies.
Dr. Donald E. Wilson, the cost commission’s chairman, said state government has collected similar data from hospitals for 25 years without consent and without compromising the identity of patients.
“Informed consent is not needed since the commission is already prohibited from using identifiable information,” Wilson testified at the hearing.
In addition, John Colmers, the cost commission’s executive director, said that what the bill proposes to exclude is crucial information if medical data are to be analyzed. And if people withhold consent, he argued, the commission’s data is not representative of the entire population.
Sen. Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George’s, asked Colmers if computer hackers could access the records.
Colmers said no, given that computer users cannot simply dial into the commission’s system.
“The commission has taken very serious steps to protect the information,” he added.
The information is taken not from actual medical records, but from a form that doctors must file with insurance companies, Colmers said. The insurance companies encode the information. When the commission receives it, it is given a new code, he said.
But at the rally for the Patient Consent Act, Dr. Richard Epstein, chairman of the Ethics Committee of the American Psychiatric Association, said the legislation is about the basic right to guard one’s own private information.
“Unless people feel they can talk to me, they may withhold information,” Epstein said. “Withholding potentially important information is bad for the health of the public. The Patient Consent Act would correct the problem.”
One of the rally’s organizers, Dr. Jennifer Katze, a Towson psychiatrist, said patients have the right to privacy.
“The government’s job in the information age is to protect our privacy,” Katze said. “The issue is the rule of our government. We want consent and we have the right to it.”
Del. Kenneth Holt, R-Baltimore County, is a co-sponsor of the House version of the bill, and attended the rally. “Consent is common sense,” he told the demonstrators. “Unfortunately there is a lot that comes out of here that isn’t.”
Della, the Senate sponsor, said 8,000 individuals had signed a petition in support of the bill. The House Environmental Matters Committee will hear testimony on the House bill Tuesday. -30-