Highlight on Maine: Main CDC seeks to withhold outbreak information despite strong pushback

MaineHealth, the Maine Medical Association, Eastern Maine Health Systems, and other health care organizations opposed a proposed rule change by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC) that would allow the state agency discretion not to disclose the locations of infectious disease outbreaks. The rule change comes after two instances in recent years in which the agency refused to name the location of such outbreaks.

Maine CDC withholds information

In 2014, the Maine CDC was criticized for refusing to name the restaurant at which a hepatitis A outbreak occurred. In July 2015, the Portland Press Herald filed a lawsuit after the Maine CDC refused to disclose the locations of four chicken pox outbreaks over concerns that doing so would infringe on personal privacy.  The newspaper argued that, in releasing the location of the outbreaks, no individuals would be named. The lawsuit culminated in a settlement agreement in which the Maine CDC released the names of three schools and a day care facility where the outbreaks had occurred.

Strong opposition of proposed rule change

The proposed rule change would make it easier for the Maine CDC to withhold information about the location of outbreaks of communicable diseases. The Press Herald posited that the agency’s policy “runs counter to recommendations by public health experts, who say that knowing where outbreaks occur is beneficial to the public health because some people . . . are more susceptible to communicable diseases.” An attorney for the newspaper said that the proposal conflicts with state open records laws.

In addition to the Press Herald, organizations including MaineHealth, the Maine Medical Association, and Eastern Maine Health Systems submitted comments in opposition to the proposed change. According to the Press Herald, Dr. Jeffrey Aalberg, MaineHealth chief medical officer, said that the proposed change goes “beyond what is required” by a federal law that protects patient privacy. “The proposed rule would hinder our efforts to take critical public health action in the face of an imminent or possible public health threat. Lack of ready access to data regarding disease outbreaks, contaminated food or water, school or community immunization rates, or other significant events would prevent MaineHealth facilities and providers from delivering the level of care necessary to protect the health of our patients and communities, which include vulnerable populations like children and adults with serious chronic conditions,” he said.

If the Maine Attorney General’s Office evaluates the rule and finds it to be legal, it will go into effect four months after the comment period, which ended August 1, 2016.