Health Care

Wash. House backs health data privacy bill

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, left, confers with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, at an event in Seattle held by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Washington State House has approved a measure that attempts to tighten protections for consumer health data, part of a package of bills aimed at protecting access to abortions and other reproductive and gender-affirming health care. 

The My Health My Data Act passed the House on a 57 to 39 vote Saturday and now heads to the state Senate. It comes as Democrats in state legislatures across the country push for new protections for sensitive health data that is stockpiled by tech companies and not shielded by federal health care privacy laws. 

“Protecting us from attacks on our most sensitive health data is long overdue,”  said Washington Rep. Vandana Slatter (D), the lead sponsor of the House bill. “Websites and apps have the tools to protect our data. It’s time they did that.” 

Lawmakers in both parties have sought in recent years to regulate how consumer data is collected, transmitted, used or sold, an area that Congress has found tricky to legislate. 

But the issue has taken on new urgency among Democrats, who say that the stakes are raised by the 2022 overturning of Roe vs. Wade and a raft of GOP bills aimed at curbing transgender rights. They argue that digital information – like the dates collected by period tracking apps or the times that a cell phone pinged a tower near a clinic offering abortions or gender-affirming care – could be used to target individuals for harassment or prosecution. 

At least half a dozen states – almost all of them controlled by Democrats – are considering consumer health care data privacy bills, according to a list compiled by the Husch Blackwell law firm and Pluribus News reporting. The Washington State bill is the first to pass either legislative chamber. Companion bills in the Virginia House and Senate did not make it to either floor for a vote before the legislative session ended at the end of February. 

Other blue states, including Minnesota and Hawaii, are considering measures that would prohibit the use of digital data in abortion-related prosecutions in other states after California passed the first such law last year.

The Washington State bill, introduced in partnership with Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D), prohibits the sale of consumer health data not protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal law that required the creation of national standards to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient’s consent or knowledge. It also requires consumer consent before personal, health-related data is shared or collected. 

The bill was one of five reproductive health measures that Senate Democratic leaders highlighted as they commemorated what would have been the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling in January. 

The Senate has until March 29 to advance the bill through committee and April 12 to pass it off the Senate floor.