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Gallagher Issues Emergency Rule to Protect Privacy of Consumers’ Health and Financial Information

7/2/2001

TALLAHASSEE – Effective July 1, information about a consumer's income, credit history and physical and mental health will be protected under an emergency rule issued today by Florida Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher. The emergency rule, valid for 90 days, prohibits licensed insurance companies from releasing a consumer's personal health information without his or her permission. The rule also requires insurers to notify consumers prior to using or sharing their personal financial information.

"In today's world of interconnected, high-speed technology, your bank or insurance company can disclose your financial and health history with the punch of a computer key," Gallagher said. "In the absence of privacy standards, consumers may be more vulnerable to the sharing of their personal health and financial information. This rule is designed to provide firm guidelines to insurers interested in sharing what is potentially sensitive information."

Under federal legislation enacted in 1999 – the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) –banks and insurance companies are now allowed to share a consumer's financial and health information without restriction unless the consumer prohibits it. However, the GLBA authorizes the states to enact broader protections over a person's health information – such as the results of a life insurance medical exam.

"Many Floridians are already receiving privacy notices from their financial and insurance companies," Gallagher advised. "Taking no action when these notices arrive means that consumers have given these companies permission to share, sell or market their personal financial information. If consumers don't want their financial profile shared, they must tell the company."

The GLBA also requires states to adopt privacy regulations. With the GLBA slated to go into effect on July 1, many states have enacted or are working to have a privacy regulation in place by this date.

During the 2001 session, the Florida Legislature passed legislation (SB 2174 sponsored by Jacksonville Sen. Betty Holzendorf and Rep. Donald Brown from Defuniak Springs) that effectively extends privacy protections to Florida's consumers. The legislation requires the Florida Department of Insurance to develop rules based on and consistent with the model regulation developed by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) and the standards set out in the GLBA.

In response to the legislation that passed, the department has been working on promulgating a rule that will closely mirror the NAIC model. The model provides guidelines for the protection of financial and health information held by insurance companies, agents and other entities engaged in insurance activities. The model requires insurers to:

notify consumers about their privacy policies;
give consumers the opportunity to prohibit the sharing of their protected financial information with non-affiliated third parties; and
obtain affirmative consent ("opt-in") from consumers before sharing protected health information with any other parties, affiliates and non-affiliates alike.

"Implementing a rule will provide consumers with important privacy protections and ensure our state's compliance with the privacy provisions of the GLBA," Gallagher said. "My goal is to ensure that the final rule implemented is simple, unobtrusive and fairly protects the privacy of health and financial information."

The emergency rule will be in effect for 90 days. The department held its first rule workshop on June 15. In the interim, the department will continue to evaluate written and oral comments by interested parties and the public. Although a date has not been set, the department also plans to hold a public hearing on the proposed final rule.

A copy of the emergency rule is available on the department's website under "Hot Topics" at http://www.fldfs.com/Companies/indextest.html.