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Public Health Emergency Privacy Act Introduced to Ensure Privacy and Security of COVID-19 Data

On January 28, 2021, Democratic senators introduced the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act to protect the privacy of Americans and ensure data security measures are applied to safeguard COVID-19 related health data collected for public health purposes.

The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act was introduced by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and U.S. representatives Anna Eshoo, D-CA., Jan Schakowsky, D-IL., and Suzan DelBene, D-WA and requires strong and enforceable privacy and data security rights for health information to be set.

“Technologies like contact tracing, home testing, and online appointment booking are absolutely essential to stop the spread of this disease, but Americans are rightly skeptical that their sensitive health data will be kept safe and secure,” said Sen. Blumenthal. “Legal safeguards protecting consumer privacy failed to keep pace with technology, and that lapse is costing us in the fight against COVID-19.”

The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act will ensure strict privacy protections are implemented to ensure any health data collected for public health purposes will only ever be used to achieve the public health purpose for which it was collected.

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The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act restricts the use of data collected for public health purposes to public health uses, prohibits the use of the data for discriminatory, unrelated, or intrusive purposes, and prevents government agencies that play no role in public health from misusing the data.

The Act requires data security and data integrity protections to be applied to safeguard health data, for the data collected to be restricted to the minimum necessary information to achieve the purpose for which it is collected and requires tech firms to ensure the data is deleted once the public health emergency is over.

Americans’ voting rights are protected by not permitting conditioning the right to vote on any medical condition or use of contact tracing apps. The Act will also give Americans control over participation in public health efforts by ensuring transparency and requiring opt-in consent. The Act also requires regular reports on the impact of digital collection tools on civil rights.

The Public Health Emergency Privacy Act will not supersede the requirements of HIPAA, the Privacy Act of 1974, or federal and state medical record retention and health information privacy regulations.

“Strong privacy protections for COVID health data will only be more vital as we move forward with vaccination efforts and companies begin experimenting with things like ‘immunity passports’ to gate access to facilities and services,” said Sen. Warner. “Absent a clear commitment from policymakers to improving our health privacy laws, as this important legislation seeks to accomplish, I fear that creeping privacy violations and discriminatory uses of health data could become the new status quo in health care and public health.”

This is not the first time legislation of this nature has been proposed. A similar bill was introduced in 2020, but it failed to win congressional support.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.