MEDICAL PRIVACY: No Longer Assured, L.A. Times Says
A front-page story in last Tuesday's Los Angeles Times looked at the growing threat to the privacy of personal medical information. The article noted that many workers fear their employers will gain access to such information and "use it to deny promotions and job changes, demote workers or avoid hiring them in the first place." Georgetown University law professor Larry Gostin said, "The problem today is that most health information is in large databases that are held by managed care organizations, pharmacy-benefit managers, employers and government regulators, and there are no federal laws that protect against disclosure." The Times reported that 48 million American workers are covered in self-insured health plans in which employers often have "direct access to workers' medical records," raising further privacy concerns. But employers and health care organizations defended the need for collecting health information. "Literally hundreds of lives have been saved as a result of highly accessible information," said John Nielsen, senior legal counsel for Intermountain Health in Salt Lake City. Healthcare Leadership Council's Alan Mertz said, "There are uses of patient information that help patients -- you need information ... to conduct research, do risk assessment or send reminders to patients that it's time for a yearly mammogram or vaccinations."
Mertz noted that it is illegal under federal law for employers to discriminate against workers based on their health information. But Jeffrey Crowley, co-chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, said, "Discrimination laws only help you after something bad has happened. We want privacy laws to limit the flow of information so that it prevents bad things from happening in the first place." The Times listed a number of cases in which medical privacy was violated. In one case, an HIV-infected individual obtained AZT under his health policy. When his employer discovered this, it moved to eliminate AZT coverage from the policy (Rubin, 9/1). Click here to read past CHL coverage of the medical privacy issue.