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Doctors’ Rights To Ask About Guns Not Affected By Health Law Provisions

Set of different guns

Should gun owners have to share information with health professionals about their firearms and whether they’re stored safely at home? This controversial issue gets a nod in the federal health law.

Tucked into the Affordable Care Act is a section that protects people from having to disclose information about guns they own to wellness programs and prohibits federal health law officials from collecting and keeping records about it. Insurers can’t factor gun ownership into health insurance premiums either under this section of the law. So gun owners may want to pay attention to the debate on revising Obamacare.

But the law doesn’t address an area of greater concern to both gun owners and physicians: whether it’s good practice for doctors to ask patients about gun access, storage and use to prevent people, including children, from hurting themselves and others.

“Currently there is no federal or state law that limits doctors ability to ask or counsel,” said Dr. Marian Betz, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado, who co-authored a study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine that examined federal and state laws regulating physician-patient communication about guns.

Research isn’t conclusive on the impact of these conversations, but it suggests they can be important. One study found, for example, that when pediatricians talked with parents about guns, it led to safer gun storage practices, while another found that when psychiatrists counseled parents of suicidal adolescents about gun safety, they locked up guns that were in the home.

Some states have imposed restrictions on gun-related information that patients must provide or that can be collected by providers and state officials. The most notable is Florida, which in 2011 passed the so-called “Docs vs. Glocks” law that generally prohibited doctors from asking patients if they had a gun at home.

The law was found unconstitutional, then that decision was overturned by a divided three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. The full appeals court in turn vacated that decision and heard oral arguments last year, but has yet to rule. In the meantime, the Florida law has not gone into effect.

The health law provisions were reportedly inserted into the law by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to mollify gun owners, who were worried that the law would be used to create a registry of gun owners or charge them more for coverage.

The National Rifle Association didn’t respond to a request for comment about potential repeal of the health law provisions.

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