Senators Urge Scrutiny of Health-Data Deals Including Google Project

Date : 11/12/2019 @ 11:01PM
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Senators Urge Scrutiny of Health-Data Deals Including Google Project

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By Sarah E. Needleman and Rob Copeland 

Several U.S. lawmakers called for sharper regulatory scrutiny of patient health-data deals, including one between Google and the nonprofit health system Ascension, on concern that such arrangements run afoul of federal privacy rules regarding medical records.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Google is engaged with Ascension, one of the country's largest health systems, on a project to collect and crunch the detailed personal-health information of about 50 million Americans. The data involved in the initiative, code-named "Project Nightingale," encompasses lab results, doctor diagnoses and patient hospitalization records, among other categories. Neither patients nor doctors had been notified about the partnership.

Project Nightingale appears to be the biggest effort yet from a U.S. technology company to enter the health-care industry through the handling of patients' sensitive medical data. St. Louis-based Ascension is a Catholic chain of 2,600 hospitals, doctors' offices and other facilities across 21 states and Washington, D.C.

Sens. Mark Warner (D., Va.), Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Bill Cassidy (R., La.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) are among legislators who separately issued statements raising serious concern over the arrangement. Mr. Warner urged Congress or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to halt Google's arrangement pending an investigation.

"Allowing already-dominant technology platforms to leverage their hold over consumer data to gain entrenched positions in the health sector is a worrying prospect," Mr. Warner wrote.

Mr. Warner said a moratorium should also be applied to any other similar deals involving a company already under a consent-decree agreement for serious privacy and security violations, as is the case with Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc.

Google's YouTube agreed in September to pay a $170 million fine after the Federal Trade Commission and the New York state attorney general investigated complains that the video-sharing platform illegally collected data on children to sell ads for products.

Google declined to comment on the lawmakers' criticisms.

After the Journal report, Google and Ascension issued a news release saying the initiative is compliant with federal health law and includes robust protections for patient data. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 generally allows hospitals to share data with business partners without telling patients as long as the information is used "only to help the covered entity carry out its health care functions."

Ms. Klobuchar, a Democratic presidential candidate, said Google's trove of health data warrants more government oversight because there are "very few rules of the road in place regulating how it is collected and used."

She added: "As science continues to drive technological innovation, we must not sacrifice privacy."

Google has taken other recent steps to gain a toehold in the health-care industry through the handling of patients' medical data. The company earlier this month agreed to purchase Fitbit Inc., whose fitness-tracking bands collect a range of consumer health data, for roughly $2.1 billion. In September, Google's cloud division reached a 10-year deal with the Mayo Clinic to store the hospital system's medical, genetic and financial data.

Other technology giants, including Apple Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp., are aggressively pushing into health care. Analysts have said it is logical the companies will look for ways to monetize any consumer health data they collect by teaming up with health-care companies to develop new products or services.

Write to Sarah E. Needleman at sarah.needleman@wsj.com and Rob Copeland at rob.copeland@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 12, 2019 17:46 ET (22:46 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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