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Urge state senators to support HB 1893 because public has right to know

The Disease Prevention and Control Law has become an impenetrable barrier that blocks public access and government accountability related to infectious diseases and other community health issues.

House Bill 1893, which would revise the law, passed the state House along a party-line vote but is opposed by Gov. Tom Wolf. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Craig Staats (R-Bucks) replaces Section 15 of the law with a provision that all disease information under the act is subject to the Right-to-Know Law.

As we saw during the pandemic, state agencies were only too quick to deny the public crucial information about what government was doing. Gov. Wolf’s secretive waiver plan was Exhibit A in what could go wrong when a branch of government is allowed to act unilaterally and refuse to tell the public what it is doing.

If this bill passes the state Senate:

¯ State agencies and counties could no longer use the DPCL to withhold information germane to infectious diseases and other community health issues.

¯ Newsrooms statewide would be able to gather public health information when Pennsylvanians need it most.

¯ Pennsylvania citizens would be better able to understand, prepare for, and respond to the current pandemic and other disease outbreaks.

The bill robustly protects the personal health information of individual citizens while providing access to essential government information through aggregated public health data.

The Wolf administration stated in an email to the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association, “In its current form it allows for the public release of personally identifiable medical records and would make public every report of disease.”

PNA believes this is factually and legally inaccurate. The bill does NOT allow for the release of personal health information. No state or federal health department gives out personally identifiable health information because it is expressly prohibited by federal law (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA).

Pennsylvania’s Department of Health would also be forbidden from releasing personally identifiable health information under HIPAA, which supersedes the DPCL, the Right-To-Know Law and all other state law. This bill does not change anything about HIPAA’s confidentiality provisions and it does not allow the Department of Health to release personally identifiable health information.

Some legislators have expressed concern related to data breaches involving COVID records and Department of Health contractors. The issue of data security and government contractors is wholly unrelated to this bill and the public access requirements of the Right-to-Know Law. This bill would not permit the health department or its contractors to release personally identifiable health information.

The current law essentially allows the state to keep secret its knowledge on 75 communicable diseases. The government doesn’t have to tell us what it knows about anthrax, rabies, smallpox or plague, to name a few.

Public access to records under the DPCL will create accountability for government agencies tasked to handle health-related crises and will also create an informed citizenry who can work to stop the spread of disease. People can make more responsible decisions when they have timely access to accurate information. Updating the law to provide public access will help mitigate health risks to society caused by this pandemic and any future threats from infectious diseases.

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