Public Health is not a Privacy Breech for Citizen Protection and Disaster Prevention

Health Care

emergency-preparednessHouston    We can’t have it both ways.  We can’t mourn the more than 1000 deaths in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina and condemn the government for not taking responsibility for the most vulnerable citizens without transportation or facing medical problems, and also say that the government should stand aside from his duty in order to protect privacy rights of those individuals. 

            What am I talking about?  Well, it turns out that HHS working with local public health departments has conducted some pilot programs in New Orleans, central New York State around Binghamton, and Arizona or proactively reaching out to vulnerable populations when there might be health care emergencies.  All good so far, right?  If trouble is coming, storms are brewing, why not get ahead of the game.  To do so the government embraced big data though which has unsettled some folks.  They data mined to identify people that that might be impacted in an emergency. 

The experiment in New Orleans was recent and well-remembered by people living there in our still fragile post-Katrina world.  An ice storm was expected in the city which, dollars to donuts, was also likely to knockout electricity.  People got calls to be prepared and offers of help.  This was possible because earlier in this pilot the health department identified more than 600 New Orleanians that might have problems with breathing machines or dialysis that could in fact be life threatening.  In a test for a potential hurricane, they went out door knocking and asked people whether they were good or needed help.  Only 15 of the 600 were registered in some special needs directory in New Orleans, and who knew that even existed.  In one neighborhood their door knocks found that no one had a backup battery. 

Frankly to me this sounds fantastic.  It’s a story of government doing its job for goodness sakes

It also seems clear the rules were followed.  From the report:

Respecting the importance of federal and state laws that restrict the disclosure of medical data, the officials found a legal route for Medicare to transfer data on patients’ bills for medical equipment to public health authorities who have systems in place to protect patient privacy. They published a description of it in the Federal Register.

            Nothing all sneaky and NSA about that.  Public health officials and many of the rest of us might wish that more than just Medicare patients were protected in this way, like everyone whose lives depend on a machine and hospital orders and payments to medical equipment companies. 


There’s a difference between largely unregulated and unsupervised private and corporate data exchanges and an accountable government following the rules and protecting its citizens. We have to be able to draw the distinctions between Big Brother and Good Neighbor with the government.   We have to support getting the full benefits from our tax dollars with the government’s use of information, and spend more of our time making sure corporations aren’t just pinching their pennies with the information in their hands.