On August 21, 2009 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued “Considerations and Recommendations for a National Policy Regarding the Retention and Use of Dried Blood Spot Specimens after Newborn Screening” relating to storage and use of newborn blood spots (NBS). The agency recommendations discussed assurances of privacy and confidentiality for storage and advised that each state should disseminate policies that promote public trust, emphasize transparency, and encourage informed public participation. It promulgated seven recommendations, including: all states should have a policy in place to address NBS retention, use, and research access; states should provide educational materials to the public and expecting mothers on use and potential future uses; and states should adopt an opt-in or opt-out model if NBS are available for any process outside the screening process or internal screening test development.
However, parental attitudes and pending litigation in this area suggests that the agency’s goals to promote public trust and encourage public participation may not be achieved with these guidelines.
Tarini, et al.’s survey in Public Health Genomics examined parental willingness to permit NBS storage and research. If permission is obtained, 76.2% of parents were very or somewhat willing to permit use of NBS for research, but if permission was not obtained, only 28.2% of parents would be very or somewhat willing to permit use of NBS for research. These results show most parents will permit retention and use as long as they are asked, reiterating the importance of respecting a person’s autonomy and dignity to permit or refuse participation.
Two pending cases in Minnesota and Texas confirm the results of Tarini et al.’s study and demonstrate that collection, retention, and research use of NBS and associated PHI even if conducted or facilitated by the state department of health is biobanking research. Accordingly, it should be governed under the Common Rule and Privacy Rule, meaning actual consent is not only optimal but perhaps required.
In June 2009, Minnesota parents (Bearder, et al.) filed a civil complaint against the state of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH, et al.) for failing to comply with the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act and continuing to store and use NBS without consent. The complaint contains a litany of claims, including violation of the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act, eight tort claims, fundamental right claims, and government taking. Plaintiffs’ claims for intrusion into seclusion, fraud and misrepresentation, and government taking summarize the essence of the alleged injury:
- A person has a privacy interest in his or her own blood (acting as guardian for the newborns’ blood) and the medical information that may be obtained from it;
- The MDH intentionally omitted that the NBS was not taken solely for screening but would be retained and used, knew that parents would provide them NBS for the purpose of screening, and parents relied on these representations but would not have consented to providing MDH the NBS had they known; and
- Blood and genetic information constitute a “valuable national resource” and a represent a “gold mine” for the state and affiliated researchers that the government cannot automatically appropriate even in the name of public health research.
In a prayer for relief, plaintiffs request damages as statutorily indicated, request an injunction, and a cease and desist order against MDH. Minnesota’s history confirms that NBS collection, retention, and research falls within its Genetic Privacy Act, meaning a separate consent is required for each activity; and importantly, that the research conducted or approved by the Minnesota Department of Health is not exempt from these requirements.
In Texas, parents (Beleno, et al.) filed a civil complaint in March 2009 against the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS, et al.) claiming TDSHS has no legal authority to retain and use NBS without consent. Beleno et al. assert this practice violates the privacy principles as well as violates the prohibition against seizure. Plaintiffs request that the court order the destruction of all NBS stored without consent (around 4.2 million samples) since it began the practice in 2002 or obtain retroactive parental consent. Additionally, plaintiffs seek an order to compel TDSHS to disclose for what purposes the NBS have been used and financial transactions involving the NBS.
New legislation TX HB 1672 that implements a compromise by using an opt-out system was signed into law and will take effect September 2009. It remains to be seen whether all Texas parents will agree with this solution and how the court will address the issue of what to do with the 4.2 million NBS that were stored without consent.
If NBS constitute such a valuable resource, then it is incumbent on us to encourage transparency of state health departments’ intentions by educating parents on the importance of using NBS for research purposes, how the state plans to use them, and respect parents enough not to circumvent the law’s intent but actually obtain their consent. If not, parents could turn to the judicial system and potentially prevail, creating a costly and lengthy legal battle for the state health department as well as jeopardizing the current collection of NBS.