Monday, December 18, 2017
Health

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 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.

Physicians say that asking whether there are guns in the home and how they're stored should be part of routine discussions doctors have about hazards such as or unfenced swimming pools. In most instances, those conversations take place between pediatricians and parents of young children. In 2009, one in five deaths caused by injuries to people younger than 20 were related to firearms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics' revised policy statement on gun-related injuries released in October.

But gun-rights advocates say information about gun ownership is no one else's business.

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