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    New York Times: U.S. Mines Personal Health Data to Find the Vulnerable in Emergencies

    The New York Times considers the privacy implications of the government using personal medical information for a variety of programs:

    Those warnings [to individuals from the government about a storm in New Orleans] resulted from vast volumes of government data. For the first time, federal officials scoured Medicare health insurance claims to identify potentially vulnerable people and share their names with local public health authorities for outreach during emergencies and disaster drills.

    The program is just one of a growing number of public and corporate efforts to take health information far beyond the doctor’s office, offering the promise of better care but also raising concerns about patient privacy.

    In some cities, text messages remind parents to get their children vaccinated. Elsewhere, emergency medical services sift records to identify — sometimes to law enforcement officials — “frequent fliers” who take repeated, costly ambulance trips. In New Orleans, a health care information exchange notifies primary care physicians when their patients are admitted to hospitals, offers insurers the ability to sift the data for “high-cost users” and permits authorized individuals to “break the glass” in emergencies — viewing records of patients who have not previously given permission and cannot speak for themselves. And a federal program allows data sharing with public health officials to monitor “mental health conditions” and other illnesses in hazardous situations, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. […]

    About a dozen advocates for people with disabilities who were briefed [on the warnings from Medicare data program] by officials generally expressed support and appreciation of the concern for their community’s needs in emergencies.

    Others find the program troubling, however well intentioned. “I think it’s invasive to use their information in this way,” said Christy Dunaway, who works on emergency planning for the National Council on Independent Living, which supports disabled people living at home.

    She and others said they were worried that identified individuals could be forced to evacuate to shelters that cannot accommodate people with disabilities, or that incomplete data could provide false assurances of government rescue. […]

    Dr. Karen DeSalvo, a former New Orleans health director who helped develop the Medicare pilot program and now leads the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, said that the program protected patient privacy and that its benefits outweighed its risks.

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