MEDICAL PRIVACY: Bennett Bill to be Unveiled Today
A medical records privacy bill slated for introduction today by Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) is already drawing charges that it falls short of the consumer protections proposed under competing measures, but his bill looks to have early health industry support. Bennett's bill differs from the measure introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and also the bill from Sens. Jim Jeffords (R-VT) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT), in that it would preempt "virtually all state laws," and would not limit health plans to a list of specific uses for consumer health data. CongressDaily reports that all the proposals would require patients to provide plans with the information needed "to render treatment and pay providers." The Jeffords-Dodd bill also includes a "finite list" of other allowable uses for data, while the Bennett measure provides "only illustrations of allowable 'health care operations'" (Rovner, 4/23). Bennett's bill would also require medical research to be approved by a review board, encourage the use of patients whose privacy can be protected, and call for further study by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences.
Bennett said, "Trying to find the right balance between the legitimate uses of health care data and the need for privacy has been a very difficult road to go down. They are not as private as Americans think they are. ... In today's world this information goes across state lines, and with no single standard of confidentiality." His bill, which carries penalties of up to $250,000 and 10 years in prison, is co-sponsored by Sens. Connie Mack (R-FL) and Frank Murkowski (R-AK). The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Bennett avoided including "the hot-button issue of whether law enforcement officials should have access to sensitive mental health information when conducting background checks for gun ownership," fearful it would upset his carefully negotiated support (Heilprin, 4/26).
Janlori Goldman of Georgetown University's Health Privacy Project argued that the ambiguity of the "health care operations" measure in Bennett's bill would enable a "clever health plan or drug company [to] put everything in that box," including marketing activities. Heidi Wagner of Genentech, which is "part of an industry coordinating coalition," countered that Bennett's bill allows "only things that relate to the actual operations of a health plan -- it's not open ended." While the industry contends that a federal preemption of state laws of various strictness is necessary for the operation of nationwide health plans, Goldman said the federal standard mandated by Bennett's measure would "wipe out a whole body of state law," including protections for HIV/AIDS patients, adopted children, and people with mental illnesses and "genetic predispositions to certain diseases" (CongressDaily, 4/23). The nation's largest group of medical records professionals, the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), today endorsed Bennett's Medical Information Protection Act. Linda L. Kloss, AHIMA executive vice president and CEO, said Bennett's measure includes several provisions that "will go a long way toward protecting patient information" (AHIMA release, 4/26).
Under the Gun
The Senate Health , Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a final hearing on the issue tomorrow, heading for a tentative May mark-up date -- the start of "a four-month push to meet an Aug. 21 deadline for Congress to address the issue or else have the HHS Department do it for them," under the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) said Congress' race against the clock is "do-able," but that "people are consumed by Kosovo" (CongressDaily, 4/23).
Nice Try; No Cigar
A Washington state bill that would have provided additional protection for DNA records was stopped in the state House last week, after Senate Democrats attached a rider to a criminal DNA database measure to "prohibit physicians, hospitals and researchers from creating" genetic databases of ordinary citizens. The House voted unanimously to reject the amended measure, sending it back to the Senate "in the hope the original bill on criminal DNA tracking will be approved." If the amendment had succeeded, patients would have been able to "sue under the state Consumer Protection Act if the genetic testing results were ever released." Hospitals and biotech companies said the rider would "hamper genetic research" (CongressDaily/A.M., 4/26). Click here for further coverage from last week's Seattle Times.