MEDICAL IDS: Lawmakers Urge Privacy Protections First
Republican lawmakers convinced House leaders Friday to require Congress to pass patient privacy provisions before the Department of Health and Human Services could go ahead with plans to assign medical identification numbers to all Americans. The agreement on privacy legislation was included in the House GOP patients' rights legislation passed Friday and signals the growing backlash against a plan to track medical information from cradle to grave by assigning a medical ID number to every American (Goldstein/Eilperin/Dewar, Washington Post, 7/25). On the other side of the Capitol, four senators made another push to keep the federal government from implementing the medical ID program, introducing a bipartisan bill that would repeal the provision in a 1996 health insurance portability law that mandated the IDs. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), John Ashcroft (R-MO), Conrad Burns (R-MT) and Spencer Abraham (R-MI) cosponsored the bill. "Congress is playing the legislative equivalent of a game of chicken," Leahy said. "It is irresponsible to expose patients to this massive new erosion of their privacy. ... This computerization of medical information has raised the states in privacy protection. Congress created this threat. Now Congress needs to just say no to the idea of a cradle-to-grave medical dossier" (release, 7/24).
An Emerging Issue
Patient privacy "has not always been a top-line issue," said Janlori Goldman, founder of the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University. But since the medical ID plan made news last week, medical privacy has figured prominently in the daily headlines. "We used to think that medical information was a bunch of intimacies that you gave to your doctor and your doctor when into a back room and locked it up," said Georgetown University law professor Lawrence Gostin, who is chairing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention task force on the issue. "That is a world that doesn't exist anymore. Now you have huge, large-scale databases in government, managed care organizations, pharmacies," he said (Stolberg, New York Times, 7/26). The patient privacy conversation continues in this week's U.S. News & World Report, which runs an interview with Washington, DC, privacy consultant Robert Gellman, who is heading the HHS panel charged with making recommendations on the new ID system. Gellman worries that the ID will be used for the wrong purposes: "The notion that the ID would be just for health purposes is absurd," he says (8/3 issue).
Medical privacy was big news on the editorial pages this weekend:
- Akron Beacon Journal: The editorial notes the threats to privacy that have arisen with the growth of the Internet. "Hospitals, clinics, manufacturers, nationwide concerns and others routinely transmit information electronically. Without adequate safeguards, the Internet ... is fraught with the potential for misuse" (7/24).
- Bergen Record: "At this point, the ID number is a bad idea. That's because there is no way to guarantee that anyone's medical privacy can ever be fully protected" (7/26).
- Chico (CA) Enterprise-Record: "The creation of a medical database that would be an abrogation of patient privacy is the latest evidence that Big Brother is at work. And, has been at work for some time" (7/24).
- Houston Chronicle: "Americans had better insist on carefully crafted privacy protections with tough penalties for violations -- and sooner rather than later" (7/24).
- Miami Herald: "In emergencies, the [medical ID] could become a godsend, allowing far-away physicians instant access to medical files listing your allergies, medications, etc. But medical records can also come back to bite. ... [C]learly Congress must follow up by enacting tight privacy laws" (7/25).
- Washington Post: "It's easy to see the nightmare scenarios that result from combining so powerful a collection tool for health data with the current lax state of protection against the data falling into the wrong hands. ... [T]he benefits of a universal identifier need to be weighed skeptically against its undoubted dangers" (7/26).