Seal of the Senate of the State of Texas Welcome to the Official Website for the Texas Senate
Seal of the Senate of the State of Texas
Welcome to the official website for the
Texas Senate
Senator Jane Nelson: District 12
Senator Jane Nelson
P.O. Box 12068, State Capitol
Austin, Texas 78711
Tel. (512) 463-0112
June 6, 2000
Contact: Dave Nelson

They interrupt us at dinner time with fast-talking sales calls. They flood our computer terminals with unsolicited e-mails and pop-up messages. They bombard us with special offers through the mail.

There was a time when these were the most common complaints I received in my Senate office from Texans who are fed up with the intrusive tactics of direct marketing. Now those complaints seem minuscule in comparison with the latest privacy violations being reported.

Today we are being harassed by telemarketers who appear to have reams of information on us. They seem to know what kind of car we drive, the terms of our mortgage, our spending habits, our marital status and other sensitive information.

Unfortunately, the privacy invasion business is booming in Texas. Every possible identifier we have -- our social security numbers, our latest credit card purchases, the names of the web sites we visit, the types of medicine our doctors have prescribed for us -- is now a lucrative commodity.

We've all heard of target markets, groups of people demographically broken down as a likely buyers of certain products or services. Whereas these were once broad categories, today a target market can be narrowed down to individuals and their families.

For example, certain pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, are notorious for leaking lists of patients and the names of prescription drugs they are taking.

In one case an Austin woman found herself the target of a letter encouraging her to seek treatment for depression. The letter -- on joint stationery from a PBM and the woman's employer -- cited her use of anti-depressants, even though she was only prescribed the drug for post menopausal sleep disorder.

An Associated Press story reports that while our children are surfing the Internet, their every move can be tracked and analyzed by market researchers. There are even reports that our teen-agers are being offered gifts in exchange for information about their parents.

Regrettably our state agencies are involved, too. When we register our vehicles, our names and addresses are often sold to businesses trying to sell us car warranties.

Spurred by a growing concern among Texans about these violations of our privacy, the Senate Health Services Committee and the Senate Committee on Economic Development met jointly last month to review current state and federal laws governing privacy, as well as to listen to invited testimony from key industry representatives and consumer advocates.

There were many different perspectives, but all who testified agreed on one point: Texans expect and deserve some degree of confidentiality, especially with respect to their medical and prescription drug records.

That's why it stunned me when one of our witnesses suggested that -- in the face of these invasions of our privacy -- we in the Texas Legislature do nothing to protect patient privacy.

Actually, the suggestion was that we wait until 2003 to act in order to let the federal government make a decision for us. I strongly disagree with that course of action, especially considering:

  • A comprehensive patient privacy plan has been languishing in Congress for close to a decade with little to show for it, even despite self-imposed deadlines to pass such a plan.
  • The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 mandated that Health and Human Services Commissioner Donna Shalala publish rules if Congress failed to adequately address patient privacy within three years. Four years have passed, and we are still waiting for final rules.
  • Special interest groups made the same argument that we should wait for federal action when we reformed our HMO laws in 1995. Five years later, Congress remains deadlocked on HMO accountability.

I'm not prepared to turn the fate of our most personal information over to the federal government. More importantly, I am not prepared to stand idly by while this assault on our privacy continues.

The witness who suggested we take no action to protect patient privacy, Austin attorney Elizabeth Rogers, contends that when dealing with issues concerning medical privacy, patience should be the legislative watchword in the coming session.

My watchword next session will be patients -- and their rights to privacy.

Senator Nelson represents Senate District 12, which includes parts of Dallas, Denton, Ellis and Tarrant counties.