House Republicans Call for Privacy Rule Changes
House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and Ways and Means health subcommittee Chair Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) sent President Bush a letter yesterday asking him to make "major changes" in medical privacy rules that were issued by the Clinton administration, the New York Times reports. Bush "surprised and angered the health care industry" on April 12 when he said he would let the rules take effect. But in allowing the rules to take effect, Bush "left open the possibility" that his administration may "significantly softe[n]" the rules. In the letter, Thomas and Johnson object to "some of the [rules'] most basic elements," including a requirement that doctors and hospitals receive patients' written consent before they can use or disclose medical information. According to Thomas and Johnson, care providers should not be required but rather "allowed" to obtain such information. In addition, Thomas and Johnson ask Bush to eliminate a provision that bans providers from using any personal medical information beyond the "'minimum necessary' to accomplish a given purpose." Bush also should "ease" the rules on "oral communications," Thomas and Johnson say, adding, "Patients should be protected from nurses and providers who pick up the phone and gossip about patients. However, conversations between doctors and patients overheard in an emergency room, a semiprivate hospital room or other setting cannot be protected from eavesdroppers." Hospitals are concerned that the rules would require them to build new soundproof rooms, the Times reports. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) also has called for some changes in the rules, specifically a provision that would afford federal agents "the power to look into citizens' medical records without a warrant, at any time and without notice." Armey said, "We demand that federal agents obtain a search warrant before going through our personal papers. Why not our medical records, which are often even more sensitive?"
Some industry groups agree with Thomas, Johnson and Armey. Melinda Hatton, vice president of the American Hospital Association, said that concerns cited by Thomas and Johnson were also "top areas of concern" for the group. But Janlori Goldman, coordinator of the Consumer Coalition for Health Privacy, said, "The industry should stop trying to weaken and delay the rules," adding, "We urge the Bush administration to clarify the rules. Any guidance that calms the industry and reduces the hyperbole would be welcome." For their part, Bush administration officials said that the rules could be revised or clarified to "address legitimate practical concerns" but added that "big changes" should not be expected because Bush is "committed to protecting privacy for patients and consumers." HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said he plans to issue guidelines that would help providers comply with the rules (Pear, New York Times, 5/11).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.