California privacy law could ease, despite strong voter support

California state officials could be poised to weaken a privacy law pertaining to patient medical records. This despite the fact that the Confidentiality of Medical Information Act, which gives patients the right to take legal action against a healthcare provider for medical records released without permission, carries support from 77 percent of voters, according to a statewide survey. 

Current law allows patients to sue a provider for damages of $1,000 per record released without patient permission.

This legislation, AB 439, authored by Democratic Assembly member Nancy Skinner, would immunize healthcare corporations that commit massive privacy violations from damage awards as long as they can provide an "affirmative defense" when sued by patients, according to the Consumer Federation of California. It would deny a judge's discretion to award damages based on the circumstances surrounding the breach. The bill will be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, July 3.

[See also: Privacy concerns remain barrier to health information exchanges.]

AB 439, which according to Skinners website seeks to update current law with regard to "confidential medical information in the digital age, protecting patient privacy while also recognizing that inappropriate release may occur even when providers adopt strict protections," is supported by McKesson Corporation, the developer of healthcare information systems.

Opponents of AB 439 include Consumer Federation of California, Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog, CALPIRG, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, California Alliance for Retired Americans, Electronic Frontier Foundation and World Privacy Forum.

Grove Insight conducted the poll of 600 likely November 2012 voters on in June 2012.  

  • Eighty-seven percent of Democrats, 73 percent of "decline to state" voters and 67 percent of Republicans support current medical privacy law. The argument that lawsuits could cost privacy violators "tens of millions of dollars" strengthened support, according to the Consumer Federation of California.
  • Thirty-two percent of voters said that made them more likely to support the law and 15 percent said they were more likely to oppose the law – nearly identical to the opposition level at the start of the survey. 43 percent said the argument made no difference.

[See also: Data center help to cost CMS $28M.]

"Lawmakers who favor AB 439 are out of step with their constituents," said Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California. "Californians want to hold health care businesses accountable in court – and want them to pay a stiff price when they violate our medical privacy. AB 439 eliminates an important financial deterrent against cutting corners when safeguarding our records. The State Senate should reject this deeply flawed measure."

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