CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

Health

November 27, 2012

Court case in Florida addresses doctors' freedom to ask patients about guns

 

Should doctors be able to ask their patients or patients' parents whether they own a gun? What about health insurers, employers or health-care officials implementing the Affordable Care Act?

The issue is playing out in Florida, where a federal judge in July issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of a law that would have prohibited doctors from asking patients about gun ownership in many instances, saying the prohibition impinged on doctors' First Amendment right to speak with their patients about gun safety.

The law would have allowed physicians to ask about guns if it seemed relevant to a patient's medical care or safety — for example, if a patient was severely depressed or experiencing violence in the home. Florida is appealing the judge's ruling.

Six other states — Alabama, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia — have considered similar legislation in recent years, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, though none of them has approved such a law.

The Affordable Care Act doesn't prevent doctors from asking patients about guns, but it does prohibit insurers, employers and Department of Health and Human Services officials from asking about gun ownership in many instances, and it prohibits HHS from collecting such data.

Employer-sponsored wellness programs, for example, are prohibited from asking people about gun use or storage. Such questions might be posed as part of a questionnaire that asks about risky health behavior such as smoking and inadequate exercise. Likewise, health insurers can't use gun ownership, use or storage as criteria for setting premiums or denying coverage.

Even without the new restrictions, such questions are rarely asked or acted on, say experts. "We don't have any data or industry information on [this subject], but it isn't something that we've heard about or seen companies do," says Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group.

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