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Odd Dynamic in Senate Bill Passage

The Senate Committee on Health last week passed a bill to raise the ceiling on patient privacy in Covered California.

What was most noteworthy about passage of the measure was the Alice-in-Wonderland quality of the debate, with health care advocates being put in the awkward position of wary opposition to a patient-privacy bill.

SB 974 by Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) would prohibit California’s new insurance exchange or any of its agents and representatives from disclosing personal patient information without permission from that individual.

“This bill is a bipartisan effort to bolster consumer confidence in Covered California,” Anderson said. “We want people to use the website and have the confidence in knowing that their data is going to be used in this righteous manner.”

David Panush, director of external affairs for Covered California, said the exchange didn’t have a position on the bill but that it welcomes legislation that improves patient privacy.

“We’re committed to protecting the privacy of our consumers and their personal information,” Panush said, “and in this regard we appreciate Sen. Anderson’s concerns and we welcome his efforts to help improve the experience for our consumers.”

At issue is follow-up phone contact by certified insurance agents of people who have begun online registration for the exchange. According to Beth Capell of Health Access California, a not-for-profit health care advocacy group, agents should be allowed to make that contact.

“We were opposed to the measure as it came to the [Health] committee,” Capell said. “We concur with Sen. Anderson about the need to protect consumer’s privacy. We are also very mindful of the fact that Covered California has a substantial job ahead of it to do outreach and enrollment and marketing to reach out to the hundreds of thousands of Californians who have indicated interest in getting coverage.”

Capell said she hopes to balance patients’ privacy with their need to enroll in the exchange — “to make sure people who want help [signing up for the exchange online] know about it and can get the help the exchange has to offer,” Capell said.

The County Welfare Directors Association of California was one of several advocacy groups with an “oppose-unless-amended” position on the bill. Libby Sanchez, legislative advocate for the welfare directors group said she that will change, given a recent series of amendments made to the bill.

“The concern we expressed … has to do with the requirement that counties be able to interface and exchange information with the state,” Sanchez said. “And we want to make sure that, in furthering the interests of privacy, we also want to be able to continue to do the job at hand.”

Anderson said people who don’t finish the website registration process should have it spelled out more clearly that an agent may contact them to help finish that process.

“It’s not to inhibit communicating between officials, whether it’s the county and the state, or whether it’s between Covered California and its vendors,” Anderson said. “This is about giving confidence back to consumers that they can use the website and not worry that their information is being sold to some third party.”

The bill passed committee on an 8-0 vote and now heads to the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

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