By Elise Viebeck - 06/11/13 09:14 PM EDT
A top House committee launched another probe of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Tuesday after a lawsuit alleged that the agency improperly seized millions of personal medical records in California.
In a letter, Republican leaders on the Energy and Commerce panel asked the IRS to explain how it handles confidential medical information.
"While [federal] privacy rules restrict the ability of a covered entity to release protected health information, those rules appear to impose no restrictions on the IRS's ability to use such information after it is obtained," the lawmakers wrote.
The agency is under fire from Congress for targeting Tea Party groups with additional scrutiny as they applied for tax-exempt status.
Republicans have said the offense renders the IRS incapable of neutrally enforcing tax penalties under healthcare reform starting next year.
The Energy and Commerce leaders echoed that criticism on Tuesday.
"In light of these allegations and in anticipation of the IRS's increased role in implementing healthcare under [the Affordable Care Act], we are writing to request information regarding your agency's ability to protect the confidential medical information of millions of Americans," the lawmakers wrote.
The lawsuit in California alleges "corruption and abuse of power" by 15 unnamed IRS agents who purportedly stole more than 60 million medical records while investigating the former employee of a healthcare provider. That provider was not named.
"No search warrant authorized the seizure of these records; no subpoena authorized the seizure of these records; none of the 10 million Americans [reflected in the records] were under any kind of known criminal or civil investigation," the complaint reads.
Plaintiffs argue that the alleged seizure violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful searches.
The medical records contained "intimate and private information … including [details about] psychological counseling, gynecological counseling, [and] sexual or drug treatment," the complaint reads.
Tuesday's letter was sent to IRS acting Commissioner Danny Werfel, who was given the post in May after his predecessor, Steven T. Miller, was forced out.
The class action suit was filed in San Diego Superior Court on March 11. It was first reported by the Courthouse News Service, an agency based in Pasadena, Calif.