The Lead

Pa. House passes bill to expand open records requests for state health data

By: - October 4, 2021 4:52 pm

In a party-line vote on Monday, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House approved legislation to remove from state law a frequently cited public records carve-out that Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has used to deny the public and the media access to data on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Craig Staats, R-Bucks, comes after months of requests from the state’s media advocates to axe a confidentiality provision in Pennsylvania’s 1950s-era disease control law.

“This law has become an impenetrable barrier that shields public access and accountability related to infectious diseases and other community health issues,” the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association said in a letter  to lawmakers supporting the bill.

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Under the proposal, all reports and records created when the state Department of Health uses the law, such as to implement the state’s K-12 school mask mandate, would be deemed public records.

House Republicans argued it would expand the public’s view of state health data, in particular aggregate data showing the size and scale of COVID-19’s spread and mediation.

“Data drives science — accurate science,” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre said. “If we want to follow accurate science, we need accurate data.”

During the floor debate, Democrats attempted to link the bill to Senate Republican efforts to access 9 million Pennsylvania voters’ personal identifying information as part of an investigation of the 2020 election.

However, the state’s open records law already exempts from release documents relating to an individual’s “medical, psychiatric or psychological history or disability status,” including evaluations or enrollment status in health care programs, as well as the release of any other “related information that would disclose individually identifiable health information.”

Transparency advocates also pointed out that federal health privacy laws would also protect personal health information.

Gov. Tom Wolf ran as a champion of government transparency. The COVID-19 pandemic is putting that to the test

The partisan debate comes after Wolf and the GOP-controlled General Assembly have fought for months over Wolf’s response to the pandemic, from mask mandates to business closures.

Wolf’s own commitment to transparency has been questioned as part of the debate. In 2020, he threatened to veto a bill to remove a loophole in state open records law that his administration used to delay responding to records requests amid the pandemic.

However, after that bill passed the legislature unanimously, Wolf allowed it to lapse into law without his signature.

In an email, Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, said he opposes the bill, as it would “make public every report of disease.”

“Sadly, this is yet another political attack on public health thinly veiled as a transparency effort when our mutual focus should be on improving our vaccination rate in all parts of Pennsylvania,” Kensinger said.

Staat’s open records proposal now heads to the state Senate.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.