DALLAS (AP) — Texas lawmakers are considering a bill that would keep a person's gun ownership status from being listed in their medical records, a move health providers worry would be an unnecessary government intrusion that harms their consultations with patients.
The bill would make Texas at least the second state to enact similar restrictions, following a 2011 Florida law on hold because of legal challenges.
Proponents of the Texas legislation say it's narrowly crafted to avoid infringing on medical care while also preventing government agencies from accessing the information. Critics say the proposal would only hamper the open discussion of patient health and has no practical use. They also note that medical privacy laws offer protections for a patient's personal information and government agencies already track gun ownership data.
"I don't like government moving into my exam room, in any capacity," said Doug Curran, a family doctor in Athens, southeast of Dallas, who's on the board of the Texas Medical Association. "The exam room is sacred."
Republican state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, a surgeon from Kaufman in North Texas, submitted the bill after hearing concerns from constituents who were alarmed at being asked during health consultations whether they own guns, said Spitzer's chief of staff, Robert Shulter.
"They don't consider it to be medically relevant to their condition," Shulter said.
He said the bill takes no issue with a doctor putting in the record that they discussed firearms. The problem is identifying a patient as a gun owner. Shulter said revelations that the National Security Agency is collecting Americans' phone records and intrusive practices by other government agencies show that the potential for abuse exists.
"We just don't want it going into electronic medical records that could be accessed by other government entities," he said. "It's basically to protect patient privacy."
The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 offers various privacy protections for patients, such as allowing people to check what's included in their records and learning who has requested access to their records. Patients also have the option of declining to answer a doctor's question they deem too personal.
But Shulter said extra protections are needed because waivers are granted by a patient or legal representative allowing health information to be forwarded to insurance companies or other parties.
Still, critics of the bill question why government agencies would seek such information from medical records when both state and federal agencies maintain lists of permit-holders and other data.
"Common sense costs extra," said Gary Floyd, a Fort Worth pediatrician. "And it's not common."
Floyd adds that with the limited amount of time he can spend with young patients and their families, it's important to ask questions to ascertain the health or environmental dangers they may face. A backyard pool, secondhand smoke or an improperly installed car seat could be other household concerns, not just guns, he said.
"I guess I would ask a patient, 'Wouldn't you want your physician to warn you about any possible danger to your community, or more particularly to your family?'" he asked.
The bill, which awaits a hearing before the House Public Health Committee, is among a few firearms proposals under consideration in the Legislature. One would allow license-holders to openly carry handguns and another would permit those with licenses to have concealed weapons on college campuses.
Spitzer's proposal follows the Florida law that garnered scrutiny from health providers who worried such restrictions would stifle the doctor-patient relationship. That legislation, popularly known as "Docs vs. Glocks," subjects health care providers to possible sanctions if they discuss or record information in a patient's record about firearms that a medical board later determines to be irrelevant.
The law was challenged by organizations representing 11,000 state health providers. A federal appeals court ruled in July that the restrictions don't violate the doctors' First Amendment rights. However, an injunction has prevented the law from taking effect as legal challenges continue.
Curran, the family doctor, said he's never asked whether a patient owns a gun, but he does inquire about firearms that may be accessible to children. He believes the current proposal could impair the frank discussions doctors must have with patients.
"I think you should be able to go to your doctor and talk to them about anything," said Curran, who favors discussion without a nurse or assistant transcribing the conversation into a written record.