Health IT Bill Spurs Privacy Concerns
A health care information technology bill approved in the House last month has "provoked opposition from privacy advocates, consumer groups and civil libertarians" who argue that the bill would not adequately protect patients' privacy, the Los Angeles Times reports (Alonso-Zaldivar, Los Angeles Times, 8/13).
The House on July 27 voted 270-148 to approve an amended version of a Senate bill (S 1418) passed last November that would promote the use of health care IT. The House bill, which features the language of a separate bill (HR 4157) sponsored by Reps. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) and Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), would codify the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology within HHS and would establish a committee to make recommendations on national standards for medical data storage and develop a permanent structure to govern national interoperability standards.
The bill also would clarify that current medical privacy laws apply to data stored or transmitted electronically and would require the HHS secretary to recommend to Congress a privacy standard to reconcile differences in federal and state laws.
The legislation differs significantly from the Senate bill, which does not include provisions that would expand the number of billing codes or exempt hospitals from anti-kickback laws so that they could provide health care IT hardware and software to individual physicians (California Healthline, 7/28).
Supporters of the bill say it would curb the growth of health care costs and improve patient care, but opponents -- including labor unions and consumer groups -- say the bill does not ensure adequate safeguards to protect patients' most sensitive personal information. Opponents "point to recent security breaches," including the theft of a laptop computer from the Department of Veterans Affairs that contained personal information on millions of veterans, the Times reports.
The computer has been recovered, and FBI analysts have said that no data was compromised.
Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) said, "I want medical science to go forward as long as we take care that what we are going to do is not going to expose people's privacy." Capps added, "If people don't trust the (new) system, they are not going to sign up for treatment."
Deborah Peel, a psychiatrist who heads the Patient Privacy Rights Foundation in Texas, said, "The main thing we are concerned about is that if this information leaks out to employers, it can destroy people's reputations and livelihoods." Peel said that under the bill, patients would not "have the basic right to control who can see and use the most sensitive information on Earth about you."
Jack Lewin, CEO of the California Medical Association, said new technology could potentially be used by hospitals and insurance companies to improperly coerce doctors. "It could conceivably be used in a witch hunt, going after a doctor who is outspoken on quality issues. While we don't think that would commonly occur, medical staffs want to make sure these kinds of protections are considered."
Johnson, the coauthor of the bill, said existing federal medical-privacy laws "already provide absolute protection of our health information." Robert Laszewski, a health policy consultant, said, "We are not going to be able to get health care costs under control and improve quality without dramatic implementation of health (technology) over the next 10 years." He added, "That doesn't mean give the health care industry a blank check -- we've got to have standards -- but I'm afraid we're going to have to take some risks" (Los Angeles Times, 8/13).