Editorial: State violates privacy to get health data

Published Jun 4, 2014 at 12:01AM

You may not have been aware of it, but chances are the state of Oregon knows a great deal about your health these days, including the number of doctor visits you’ve had recently, the medications you take, the procedures you have had.

That’s so because in 2009, lawmakers approved a bill allowing the state to collect from insurance companies personal health information on nearly everyone for whom they paid claims. The information includes a surprising amount of identifiable personal information, including each person’s date of birth, gender, ethnicity and location.

What lawmakers did not do that year was approve a measure that would have allowed individual Oregonians the right to refuse to participate in the collection if they so choose.

The state of Oregon argues that what’s known as the All Payer All Claims database is a very good thing, indeed. The information thus collected will be used to help measure the success of the Oregon Health Policy Board in creating a healthier Oregon, officials say.

In the end, they argue, Oregonians will be healthier and pay less for the privilege as a result. Besides, other states are doing the same thing.

Perhaps. But in an era when privacy is an increasingly elusive commodity, at what expense?

Without personal information, the state could easily learn how many surgical procedures were performed at every hospital in the state, what the outcome of each was and what the various doctors charged. It could find out how many of us routinely take Paxil and how many are using prescription birth control. The data are all there, even without personal identifiers.

True, the personal information allows researchers to link yesterday’s X-ray to next week’s knee replacement surgery. That may have some value, but not, we suspect, as much as state officials say it does.

And, while Oregon has farmed out its data collection to a private company, its record both with complex computer systems and writing contracts that do what supporters say they will is sketchy.

In the end, health care is not a matter of national security, though the data collected for All Payer All Claims is arguably more invasive than the National Security Agency’s broad sweeps of telephone records. That’s wrong, and it’s a practice the state should end sooner rather than later.