MEDICAL PRIVACY: House Dems Get Involved; Senate Stalls
House Democrats introduced a medical records privacy measure yesterday, challenging Republicans to act by crafting a consensus bill that is the House's first concrete attempt to address the issue after weeks of "languishing." CongressDaily/A.M. reports that the consensus measure "combined elements" of a bill by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), which is backed by privacy advocates, and a bill sponsored by Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA), which the health industry supports, with additional input from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and co-sponsors Reps. John Dingell (D-MI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH). A Markey aide said, "You won't see divisions on our side standing in the way of this." The Democrats' measure would "make it relatively difficult for law enforcement authorities to obtain medical information by requiring that it be treated as if it was in an individual's home." It also would require informed consent for most disclosures and leave in place existing state privacy laws (Rovner, 5/26).
Even as the House finally moves to address medical records privacy -- with the Aug. 21 deadline fast approaching -- the Senate bipartisan bill lost momentum late Monday night, just hours after it seemed the parties had smoothed key rough spots (Rovner, CongressDaily, 5/25). The Hartford Courant reports that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee canceled a debate on the bipartisan measure when it became clear that Democrats would not support a bill stripped of a provision allowing patients to sue their health plans for unauthorized disclosures of medical information (MacDonald, 5/26). Republicans "were worried that [bestowing the right to sue] was in conflict with their position on the Patients' Bill of Rights," according to one lobbyist (CongressDaily/A.M., 5/26). Committee Communications Director Joseph Karpinski said, "You can't pass anything (in the Senate) on a straight party-line vote." Bill cosponsor Rep. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) called the delay a "bump in the road." Committee Democrats said that other unresolved issues also helped table the debate, including continued disagreements over the pre-emption of state laws and the question of how difficult it should be for law enforcement agencies to gain access to medical records. HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, whose agency will be responsible for developing privacy guidelines if Congress misses its Aug. 21 deadline, said her department "will be ready to act" (Hartford Courant5/26).