Legislation to increase access to historical medical records was weakened Wednesday by an amendment to redact patient names from the records.
The Government Administration and Election Committee passed the legislation Wednesday but not before an amendment raised by Sen. Michael McLachlan, the panel’s ranking Republican, was approved in a 6-5 vote.
One Democrat, Rep. Theresa Conroy, joined five Republicans to modify the bill to redact names, addresses, and Social Security numbers from the historical medical records which the underlying legislation will permit to be released. Three of the committee’s Democrats missed the vote.
The legislation is designed to lift prohibitions on accessing medical records in the state archives 50 years after the death of the person. It would set a 75-year time limit for withholding other types of documents in the archives.
But the amendment is a step backward for historians, who have been asking the legislature to pass the bill. Sen. Anthony Musto, the committee’s co-chairman, voted against the change because it will prevent historians from cross-checking records.
Musto pointed to recent research into incidents of Post Traumatic Disorder in Civil War veterans. He said the amendment will prevent those researchers from evaluating how PTSD impacted the lives of Civil War vets by comparing their medical records with other legal documents like arrest or divorce records.
“Those are kind of things that researchers today are trying to look at… If we don’t know who suffered from it, it’s going to be hard to tell how it impacted them,” Musto said in a phone interview.
The bill had sought to undo a 2011 change to the state’s disclosure laws which was made after a dispute between the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and a history professor at Central Connecticut State University, who was seeking those Civil War records.
The professor, Matthew Warshauer, and his students eventually won access to the documents but lawmakers soon reacted by passing a confidentiality privilege barring disclosure of records that Warshauer and his students had sought for their research.
The idea of this year’s legislation was to reverse that action. But DMHAS opposed the change due to the same privacy concerns that led the agency to resist Warshauer’s information requests.
At a hearing in February, Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Patricia Rehmer said her department firmly believed it needed the authority to redact the names from records in order to preserve the privacy rights of their former patients and their surviving family members.
“Frankly, we can give people access [to records] with proper redaction. So why would somebody need to know somebody’s name, for example? This is a position that we feel pretty strongly about, that this is really a violation of the individual’s rights and the family’s rights to confidentiality,” she said.
Rehmer said there are other ways to study the historical impacts of PTSD without having the names of patients who suffered from it.
“There are many ways to gather that kind of information with a redacted record. I think you can look at symptoms, you can look at diagnosis without an individual’s name,” she said. “…To use information specifically about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder without somebody’s name, I think, can be done.”
But at the same hearing, Warshauer spoke directly against the idea of amending the bill to allow names to be redacted from the records. He called it the most concerning idea he had heard from opponents of the bill.
“The idea that we can somehow redact portions of names, or some names and not other names—they don’t understand what historical research is if they think that they can do that and still have us get to this history,” he said.
He continued later in his testimony:
“The problem with that is if you redact the names, we have no ability to go and look at a pension record in the National Archives, we have no ability to go to their local town and look at their historical society records to find letters and files related to it—anything along that sort of bread trail, the crumbs that you look for as historical detective work, you have to have the name,” he said.
It’s unclear whether the amendment would have been successful had the entire committee been in attendance, but Musto points out that it was not a party-line vote. It is still possible for proponents of the original bill to undo the amendment at some point in the legislative process but he said he did not yet know whether there would be enough support among lawmakers for that.
“If we don’t have enough support in the Senate for the bill before it was amended there’s not much point in amending it just for the sake of undoing it,” he said.