Doctors throughout the country are raising concerns about confidentiality agreements they are being made to sign in order to properly treat patients who have been exposed to chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) natural gas drilling. According to a report from American Medical News, physicians claim that the agreements amount to “gag orders” that interfere with their ability to treat patients and to share information freely with colleagues and medical researchers.
These fracking gag orders were written into some state laws requiring drilling companies to disclose information about the chemicals used in fracturing either online, or to state regulator. While the laws require gas companies to tell physicians what fracking-related chemicals their patients may have been exposed to, in return the doctors are required to sign confidentiality agreements promising they will use the information only for those patients’ treatment. States that have enacted such laws include Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado, and Ohio.
Many physicians feel these restrictions will prevent them from treating their patients properly.
“Once we sign the disclosure, who can we tell?” asked Mehernosh Khan, MD, a family doctor in Pennsylvania, asked. “How do you refer [patients] and treat them if you can’t share the information?”
When the Pennsylvania Medical Society raised concerns about that state’s law, the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health issued a letter to assure doctors that proprietary information can be utilized in whatever manner is necessary to respond to the “medical needs asserted,” including sharing the information with patients, other physicians involved in the patients’ care and public health agencies. However, some experts have worried that the state’s reassurance won’t help a doctor in court if a natural gas company feels the confidentiality agreement has been breached.
“Physicians get very nervous about these things, because they’re worried about being sued,” Barry Furrow, director of the Health Law Program at Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law in Philadelphia, told American Medical News. “It doesn’t give me any comfort unless you put it in” the statute. Farrow is seeking to have Pennsylvania’s law changed to include the state’s recent clarifications.
Alfonso Rodriguez, a doctor in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, recently went to court over the issue. Rodriguez’s lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Scranton earlier this month, seeks to have the medical provisions of Pennsylvania’s new fracking law, known as Act 13, suspended until the state drafts regulations clarifying them. Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Environmental Protection Secretary, and Public Utilities Commission are all named as defendants.
Pressure from physician groups has been effective elsewhere. In Ohio, for example, doctors were able to get a clarifying amendment added to that state’s new fracking law. It will go into affect next month.