Mass lawmakers press for patient confidentiality

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Written by Michael Norton and Antonio Caban

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON Dozens of lawmakers and the state attorney general want a new state law affording an extra level of privacy for health care consumers, but insurers say they already have procedures in place to address concerns about access to sensitive information.

“We believe that we can work with the sponsors of the legislation to find common ground that meets the interests of our members while also ensuring that members can also understand in a transparent way the services, costs and cost sharing that may be associated with the medical care they received,” Massachusetts Association of Health Plans President and CEO Lora Pellegrini said in response to a wave of support for legislation known as the “PATCH Act.”

Attorney General Maura Healey testified in favor of the bills – an act to protect access to confidential health care (S 557/H 871) – before the Financial Services Committee, which also heard support for the bills from Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Karen Spilka of Ashland and Rep. Kate Hogan of Stow. They said the bill’s passage would ensure that confidential information is not shared when multiple people are on the same insurance plan, thereby making patients more likely to openly communicate with health care providers and seek care when they need it.

Currently, according to Patch Act supporters, the privacy rights of young adults, minors and spouses are violated when insurers send explanations of benefits that detail the type and costs medical services. A single explanation of benefits system is better than varying practices across plans, lawmakers said, and would feature information sent to insured individuals, rather than the primary insurance subscriber.

Hogan, who co-chairs the Committee on Public Health, said confidentially is “particularly important” for patients seeking sexual and reproductive health services, mental health and substance abuse services, or domestic violence or sexual assault services. The bill’s passage, she testified, would “alleviate fears of being punished, traumatized, or stigmatized for health care decisions.”

Referencing the Affordable Care Act, Healey said she’s worried that those under 26 and still on a parent’s insurance plan are at “an increased risk of unwanted disclosures.” She said this could dissuade them from seeking the health care they need. “I don’t believe that’s good for them or for the health and well being of our communities,” she said.

The PATCH Act already has 76 lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors, according to Rep. Hogan.

The coalition pushing the bills – The Protecting Access to Confidential Health Care Alliance – includes about three dozen groups, such as Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, the Mass. Organization for Addiction Recovery, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts and the Women’s Bar Association.

When asked whether MAHP was for or against the bill, a spokesman told the News Service the insurance trade group is “supportive of the concept but working with sponsors to ensure it is done properly.”

MAHP asserted that their plans already have procedures in place to address the privacy of sensitive health information that’s consistent with HIPPA requirements. Those procedures, some of which overlap with the PATCH Act language, include issuing the summary of payments at the membership level, allowing payments to be sent to alternative addresses and explaining services using a generic description.

“Our plans are committed to ensuring member privacy and protecting confidentiality, and have implemented these procedures with our members’ needs in mind,” Pellegrini said.