In an effort to further public access to Pennsylvania population health data, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed HB 1893 to amend Section 15 of the Pennsylvania Disease Prevention and Control Law. The amendment would make reports of diseases, records maintained as a result of actions taken in consequence of such reports or any other records maintained under the said law subject to the Right-to-Know Law. This change would mean that data held by the Department of Health on all infectious diseases that are reported under the Disease Prevention and Control Law, not just COVID-19, would be accessible to the public.
In the continuing wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has drawn great value from population health data. Number of cases, percent positivity rate and percent vaccinated are examples of population health data that everyone has followed and, in some manner, planned their life in response to at some point since the beginning of the pandemic.
Proponents of the HB 1893 argue that it has become clear that the public and researchers need access to population health data in order to make informed decisions. Pennsylvania lawmakers have indicated frustration that current research studies have faced in trying to obtain basic Pennsylvania population health data on COVID-19. (The Disease Prevention and Control Law, as currently written, does allow for data to be provided to researchers but it must be done “subject to strict supervision” by the Department of Health.) Opponents, including Governor Wolf’s administration, are concerned that the HB 1893, in its current form, may allow for the public release of personally identifiable medical records because it does not expressly limit the release of information to only aggregate data. Additionally, others have voiced concerns about the sharing of such data providing opportunities for hackers as well as other data breaches that could occur if the information is shared publicly.
Although support for HB 1893 is currently split down partisan lines, this is not the first time that Pennsylvania lawmakers have acted to demand transparency from the Wolf Administration and the Department of Health since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Act 77 of 2020 required record transparency for all Pennsylvania agencies under the Right-to-Know Law during a declared disaster emergency by the Governor. In July 2021, the Pennsylvania Senate passed SB 559 by a unanimous, bipartisan vote of 50-0, which would require the Department of Health to make public that amount of wasted vaccine doses. That Bill is now with the House of Representatives.
HB 1893 will head next to the Pennsylvania Senate, and will likely first be considered by the Senate’s State Government Committee. Governor Wolf has indicated that, as currently written, he will veto the bill if it comes before him.