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Representative Boehnke “frustrated” with veto of COVID-19 data privacy bill

Representative Matt Boehnke is “frustrated” with the governor’s decision to veto a COVID-19 health data privacy bill on Tuesday. 

Governor Jay Inslee vetoed the legislation — HB 1127 — due to the possibility that the legislation could have banned the state, businesses and local governments from offering incentives to get vaccinated against the virus.

Boehnke, a Republican, said he was frustrated with the governor’s decision to veto a bill that represented a bipartisan effort to provide data privacy for Washington citizens.

I think we did a lot of great work throughout the strangest, most historic pandemic session you’ll probably ever see in the history of Washington State. To get a really complicated bill through [the Legislature] with a really bipartisan effort. And after having had open communication throughout the session [to have that bill vetoed] is frustrating, because we did all that hard work, we answered anybody’s questions, we reached out to other people, even if they didn’t reach out to us about any concerns they had.”

Inslee believes the legislation is too “broad” and could have banned the incentives he believes certain segments of the population need to get vaccinated. 

Boehnke, who was a co-sponsor of the legislation, said he disagreed with the governor’s assessment that promotions would have been banned under the bill. 

And I think the governor’s point was that he thought it was too ambiguous and that [the language] needs to be tightened up a little bit more. I think we had that debate and we found a good spot. That was tight enough. But it still allowed that freedom, that space that it would give those companies and other organizations [opportunities to offer promotions].”

According to Boehnke, this bill represented hours of conversations with stakeholders and state agencies to achieve the correct balance in the language of the bill.

Frankly, we talked to state agencies, we talked to health care providers, we talked to health care systems, to the employees, employers, law enforcement, you name it. We went across the board to try to make this [bill] work. And some wanted more restrictive [language], some wanted more broad. And so I think we found a good mix that was a combination of all the above that allowed people to get that flexibility but have [the language be] strict enough to go ahead and support our efforts.”

Inslee wrote in his veto that the need to incentivize vaccinations was not considered when the bill was written.

The current critical need to incentivize every eligible person to become vaccinated is an issue that did not exist, and was not contemplated, at the time this bill was drafted.” 

When the legislative session began, vaccine appointments were in short supply. But recently as more and more Washingtonians are vaccinated, supply has exceeded demand.

Public health case investigation, testing and contact tracing tools to control the spread of communicable diseases are routinely used and are subject to laws and policies protecting health information privacy. WA Notify, for example, has privacy-preserving features built in. This bill would have ensured that any new digital tools to increase the public health system’s capacity to deal with the pandemic also have protections in place to safeguard privacy.

The bill specifically would have restricted a covered organization to only collecting, using or disclosing COVID-19 health data that is necessary, proportionate and limited for a good-faith COVID-19 public health purpose. The organization would have been required to limit the collection, use or disclosure of COVID-19 health data to the minimum level of identifiability. This health data would have only been disclosable to public health agencies or for a good-faith COVID-19 public health purpose, unless the information disclosed is protected under state or federal privacy laws.

Boenke believes this bill would have allowed the state to reopen faster because it gave people the opportunity to opt into sharing their data, and know their data would only be used for public health-related purposes.

I think this is another area where we could have opened up our economy a lot quicker, frankly, if we had this, because then it would give people that opportunity [to share their data] if they wanted to opt in. So we had those safeguards in place to allow that data privacy and that citizens rights that we talked about earlier, [the bill] allowed those safeguards within the data. And it allowed the opportunities to still conduct contact tracing, and allow these companies that want to open up do it in the right way and have those safety procedures in place to do that, but give them some flexibility, and give the local control that people want. Give it back to the business owners that have been impacted the most.”

Although he is frustrated with the veto, Boehnke is planning to move forward with data privacy legislation in future sessions.

So we’re frustrated, but we’re not over yet. I think we can still move ahead, we’ve learned a lot of good stuff. And we’ve gotten this far, I think we’re both kind of taking a breath, we’re taking a pause, but we’re gonna jump right back into a space that I think bills like this are still going to be needed. And it opened the door for a lot of things, I think, in health care, but also in other parts of our community that we can leverage technology to help solve some of our world’s problems.”

Inslee said he would work with the bill’s sponsors for a new bill to protect health data next session.

This story was cross-posted on our sister site State of Reform.


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