HHS To Review Clinton Privacy Rules
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson announced Friday that the agency would "reexamine" the Clinton administration's rules on patient privacy, the AP/Miami Herald reports. The "contentious" rules again will be opened for public debate, Sec. Thompson said. The department may change the final rules, although department officials "played down that aspect," according to the Herald. As written, the rules would "punish" physicians and insurers for sharing confidential medical information about their patients. While the rules were issued on Dec. 28, the Clinton administration failed to send the regulations to Congress for review until Feb. 13. Although the rules were scheduled to take effect today, Congress' 60-day review period will delay the rules' effective date until mid-April. The AP/Miami Herald reports that the regulations were intended to end a "nearly 10-year fight" over how the government should protect personal health information. However, advocates on both sides of the issue have complained about the rules, which some have called the "most sweeping privacy law in decades." And the delay potentially "creates an opportunity for opponents of the rules," the Herald reports. Karen Ignagni, president of the American Association of Health Plans, said, "The issues surrounding medical privacy are numerous and complex and will require input from the entire healthcare community." Next week, the department will open the privacy rules for a 30-day public comment period (McQueen, AP/Miami Herald, 2/24).
While the privacy rules have been "hailed" as a way to protect patients, columnist Phyllis Schlafly, writes in a Washington Times opinion, that the rules "display the usual Clintonian doublespeak" by allowing exceptions to the "principles of notice, access, consent and correction" that they grant patients. Calling medical information a "prize" that is sought by the government, researchers, private foundations, insurers, pharmaceutical companies and providers, Schlafly said the rules expand government involvement, while allowing hospitals and businesses to use medical records for fund raising and marketing. Under the rules, Schlafly states that government access is "greatly broadened," as the HHS Secretary and any HHS employee granted the authority is given "open access" to "protected health information" for reasons of "compliance." Calling the rights that are extended to patients "virtual," Schlafly writes that medical records may be disclosed without a patient's consent for reasons of "public health, research, law enforcement, oversight of health care, judicial and administrative proceedings, treatment, payment or health care operations." In addition, while patients have the right to "inspect, copy, amend and receive and accounting of disclosure" of their records, the rules do not require an "accounting" of disclosures for treatment, payment, national security, intelligence, or correctional institutions. In addition, law enforcement and health oversight agencies may "suspended" the disclosure requirement if it would "likely impede the agencies activities," Schlafly writes. As the rules grant the HHS secretary the authority to modify the rules "during the first year of implementation," Schlafly concludes, "The Bush administration has the authority to improve the regs" (Schlafly, Washington Times, 2/24).
Arguing that "safeguarding medical privacy is vital," a Washington Post editorial says the HHS Secretary Thompson should "resist [the] pleas" of insurers and hospitals to have the rules withdrawn because they are "too complex" and too expensive to implement. While the rules as written are "far from a slam dunk for privacy," the Post says that allowing for "comments and revisions" would delay the implementation of the rules "indefinitely." In addition, an opportunity to review the rules would "reopen" the debate that prevented Congress from passing medical privacy legislation "in the first place." With "accidental disclosures" of treatments for AIDS, mental illness, addition and other "sensitive" disorders resulting in "humiliation" and loss of employment, the Post says the rules should be implemented to avoid the "small and large tragedies" that occur from disclosure of medical "secrets" (Washington Post, 2/26).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.