Washington State Backtracks on COVID-19 Health Data Bill

While Gov. Jay Inslee supports the idea of safeguarding citizens' COVID-19 health data, he vetoed a data protection bill due to phrasing in the law that could have prevented entities from offering vaccination incentives.

Washington state capitol building
A Washington state bill aimed at safeguarding citizens’ COVID-19 health data was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this week after language in the bill was found to prohibit public and private entities from offering vaccination incentives to individuals.

The proposed legislation looked to establish guidelines for organizations that collect and analyze novel coronavirus health data. The guidelines included:

  • Limiting the data collected by organizations such as hospitals, physicians’ offices and medical research facilities for public health purposes
  • Prohibiting the use of data for commercial, advertising, policing or immigration enforcement
  • Allowing citizens to opt in and out of organizations collecting their health data
  • Requiring organizations to destroy any collected health data after 30 days

“HB 1127 is a thoughtful, important proposal addressing privacy and confidentiality issues related to every person's COVID-19 health data,” a statement from the governor’s office said.

However, the statement added that “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 or made its way through the legislative process."

For this reason, the bill was vetoed.

“My initial reaction to the news was frustration,” said Rep. Matt Boehnke. “So much hard work went into this bill from collaborating on the weekends to reaching out to different parties and stakeholders.”

"We will continue to push forward," he added. "This bill is needed now more than ever.”

Fellow bill co-sponsor Rep. Vandana Slatter echoed this message in a release, saying, “While I am deeply disappointed by the governor’s decision to veto HB 1127, I am heartened by the real commitment he’s given me to work further on this emergent issue."

According to the governor’s office, that commitment would focus on advancing the policy goals in the bill both in the short and long term.

Until these goals are met, concerns remain about cyber attacks on health-care systems and infrastructure, the widespread sale of data for profit and ongoing racism within health-care systems, Vandana said.

“The COVID-19 virus has weaponized our very social connections and laid bare long-standing inequities in our society," her statement read.

The state needs to use every available tool so that every Washingtonian can feel confident that their COVID-19 health data will only be used for the right purpose, she added.

Boehnke said cutting-edge technology will be leveraged as the state proceeds to address data protection issues, but both legislators believe collaboration with state agencies, the private sector, other elected leaders, community advocates and the governor’s office is just as important.

“We are always looking to see how we can use technology to solve emergency crises,” Boehnke said. “The trick is balancing that with collaborating with innovative, creative minds to make that happen.”

Following Inslee's logic, Boehnke added that the state should strive to be "as specific as possible to allow flexibility for businesses and agencies to offer incentives that work within the complex nature of the CDC guidelines."
Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University, and more than five years of experience in the print and digital news industry.
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