SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Why is Google lobbying the US Congress over the webification of the nation’s health records? It won’t say. But lobbying it is.
In its first quarter Congressional lobbying report (http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/Google1st209.pdf), Google has said it lobbied both the House and Senate on "online health-related issues [and] issues related to online personal health records," and at least some of this involved the federal stimulus act. Meanwhile, two other third-party Washington outfits said in their own reports that Google is paying them for similar lobbying.
Naturally, this has gotten under the skin of the consumer watchdog known only as Consumer Watchdog. In late January, Los Angeles, California-based not-for-profit issued a press release urging Google to cease a "rumored lobbying effort aimed at allowing the sale of electronic medical records" via President Obama’s economic stimulus bill.
Google – which launched its own online health records operation (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/05/20/google_health_debuts/) almost a year ago – vehemently denied the claims, calling them "100 per cent false." And with typical Googly righteousness, the web giant cum world power attempted to cut the Watchdog’s funding (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/26/google_watchdog_kerfuffle/).
But in light of that lobbying report, the Watchdog feels a certain sense of vindication. "They said that our release was 100 per cent false and unfounded," the Watchdog’s John Simpson tells The Reg. "Clearly, it wasn’t."
Google continues to deny that it ever advocated the sale of online medical records – and we’re inclined to believe the company. Convincing the world it should be allowed to sell their medical records is beyond even Google’s preternatural gift for PR. But you have to wonder what is going on behind those closed Washington doors. Google spent $880,000 lobbying on interwebs health issues during the quarter. $230,000 of that was forked to outside lobbyists.
The way Google tells it, the company spent all this dough because the government asked it to. "Since launching Google Health in the spring of 2008, we have occasionally received requests from Congressional staff to learn more about Google’s views on health information technology policy," according to a portion of a canned statement the company tossed our way. "We received several such requests during discussions over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009."
Consumer Watchdog is convinced that Google is lobbying for exclusion from the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which provides privacy protections for America’s personal health records. As it stands, the laws that govern what doctors can do with a patient’s medical records do not apply to the Google Chocolate Factory. If you upload your health records to Google, you have to assume the company will always do the right thing.
"The bottom line is: You have to put your trust in Google," John Halamka, chief information officer of the Harvard Medical School, told us at the launch of Google Health almost a year ago.
And naturally, Google insists that such trust is warranted. "We have in place strict data security policies and measures, and ensure that users control access to their information. Moreover, we have repeatedly made clear that Google does not sell and opposes the sale of personal health care information," that Google statement reads.
So, no law governs Google Health. But Google is lobbying Congress on behalf of Google Health. One can only assume that the company is hoping it can mold any future law to its liking. But what exactly is Google’s concern?
In launching Google Health, the company said it had no intentions of serving ads against online health records. And it said that all the proper privacy and security measures are in place. What, then, is it interested in doing that future law might prevent?
Google spins Google Health as some sort of philanthropic venture that sprang from its deep-seated need to make the world a better place to live in. But this is a public company. And there’s a reason it just spent $880,000 on the health record lobby.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that the $880,000 Google spent on health-related lobbying include the $230,000 it paid to third parties.