Has Texas Patient Privacy Bill Hit a Snag?

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst’s bill to further protect Texans’ private medical information looks stuck; it’s been three weeks since it passed out of committee, and it hasn’t yet been set for a House vote.

But the Brenham Republican says she’s confident the measure — one of her top priorities this session — will move soon. “I’m kind of a stickler for the privacy rights of the patient,” said Kolkhorst, who chairs the House Public Health Committee. “It’s incumbent on us to set the bar very high because we’re moving into a new era.”

Not everyone is so sure. Opponents, like the life and long-term care insurers, say the measure adds “duplicative and possibly conflicting requirements” to existing federal law. And insiders question whether it’s got a shot in the Senate, which has already passed a slightly less restrictive medical privacy bill authored by Health and Human Services Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Kolkhorst’s bill would ban the for-profit sale of personal health information without a patient’s consent, and set up a process for notifying patients of the electronic transfer of their medical records. Companies or providers who break the rules would be subject to heightened fines — up to $3,000 per violation — and legal damages up to $1.5 million.

Dr. Deborah Peel, an Austin-based national privacy advocate, said Kolkhorst’s bill still falls short of the protections patients need. But she said it goes several steps further than Nelson’s bill, which prohibits the sale of protected health information and requires entities that exchange protected information to properly train their staff. And she said it’s a vast improvement over federal law, protecting Texans from “many more of those entities that illicitly collect, sell and misuse health data.”

But Whit Cornman, spokesman for the American Council of Life Insurers, said life, disability and long-term care insurers have a long history of protecting their customers’ highly sensitive health records. He said the measure would jeopardize insurers’ ability to get information they need for underwriting and claims payments from health care providers. “This is likely to result in confusion for consumers and conflicting standards for companies,” he said.

The only confusion in patient privacy circles is what the hold up is with Kolkhorst’s bill. Late last week, Kolkhorst said the bill had been “tagged,” or held up, by lawmakers in the House Calendars Committee, which sets the schedule for votes in the lower chamber. But she said she was “very heavily” pursuing getting it scheduled for a vote.

If the bill gets out of the House, Kolkhorst has some leverage of her own. She's chairwoman — read: gatekeeper — of the committee that will hear all of the health care legislation coming over to the House from the Senate.

“HB 300, in an overarching way, is something that is so necessary to say, ‘This information is sensitive, this information belongs to the person,’” Kolkhorst said. “It should be used for their better health; it should not be bartered, traded or sold.”

Nora Belcher, executive director of the Texas e-Health Alliance, said the measure strikes a good balance: It makes the ban on the sale of personal health information part of state law while allowing existing health care businesses to continue their data operations.

“It’s protecting patient privacy while not harming the provider community and the business community,” she said.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.