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Personal health data show agencies who's at risk in case of emergency

Federal officials recently shared the names and data from Medicare claims to help local health departments reach out to those residents in advance of emergencies and disaster drills. But not everyone's pleased about it.

Writes Sheri Fink of the New York Times: "The phone calls were part Big Brother, part benevolent parent. When a rare ice storm threatened New Orleans in January, some residents heard from a city official who had gained access to their private medical information. Kidney dialysis patients were advised to seek early treatment because clinics would be closing. Others who rely on breathing machines at home were told how to find help if the power went out."

It is an example of "just one of a growing number of public and corporate efforts to take health information far beyond the doctor's office, offering the privacy of better care, but also raising concerns about patient privacy," the article said.

Federal officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services say the program was very carefully crafted so that it would not run afoul of privacy protections that are guaranteed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HIPAA contains provisions to protect patient privacy, including rules about who can share and who can access information, opting in or out, and penalties that include potentially hefty fines for inappropriate dissemination of data. The act waives limited provisions in case of certain disasters or emergencies.

Phone systems have long played a role in informing communities about disasters, people at risk and more. Health departments may use automated bulk calls to inform communities about potential disasters. Police departments make similar bulk calls to ask residents to be on the lookout for missing vulnerable adults. Texts are sometimes used to remind parents about vaccination. School districts make announcements using texts or phone calls.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco