Medical Privacy Rules Will Take Effect, But Be Altered
The Bush administration announced today that it has decided to allow medical privacy rules issued by President Clinton to take effect as scheduled on April 14, but with the caveat that HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson will modify the regulations over the next few months "to make them more workable," according to an HHS press release. As a result, providers will now have two years to meet all the privacy requirements (HHS release, 4/12). According to the Wall Street Journal, the rules, which would require doctors to obtain patients' consent before disclosing their records to third parties, allow the HHS secretary to alter them for one year after they take effect, though Thompson had previously suggested that the administration might delay the rules by 60 days to allow time to change them. The rules also would impose "strict requirements" for using patient information on health plans, hospitals and other health entities. Hospitals, MCOs and the pharmaceutical industry have called the rules "too complicated and costly." While the changes Thompson is expected to implement will provide the health industry "with some relief," those changes are unlikely "to go as far as" the industry desires (McGinley et al., Wall Street Journal, 4/12).
According to a statement released today, Thompson will "make it clear through guidelines" or "recommended modifications" that doctors and hospitals will be allowed to consult with other doctors and specialists regarding a patient's care and share "necessary medical information." In addition, Thompson said he would amend the rules to ensure that patient care is "not unduly hampered" by "confusing" consent form requirements. For example, Thompson said pharmacists will be able to fill telephone prescriptions. Thompson also addressed the issue of minors' rights, saying parents "will have access" to their children's medical records. Thompson noted that the department has received 24,000 comments on the privacy rules, on all issues including substance abuse, mental health and abortion (HHS release, 4/12).
Health industry lobbyists speculated that the Bush administration's decision to implement the rules is partly because of its "desire to avoid" further "political heat," the Journal reports. Since he took office, Bush has faced criticism from various advocacy groups for "rolling back" a number of Clinton-issued regulations. However, Bush administration "insiders" told the Journal that the impetus for implementing the rules comes from Bush's "strong personal interest in the privacy issue" (Wall Street Journal, 4/12). "This town has been debating patient privacy for the better part of a decade, and President Bush believes it is now time to act and protect patients," Thompson said in his statement (HHS release, 4/12).
The rules' supporters "were delighted at the prospect of a big victory," the Journal reports. Janlori Goldman, director of the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University, said, "We would consider that to be extremely heartening news and take this as a sign that this administration understands the link between privacy and health care." The industry has two years to comply with the rules, but the Journal reports that entities likely will have to begin working toward compliance "immediately." Critics of the rules said it will be difficult to begin implementing them because of the uncertainty surrounding the types of changes Thompson will make, adding that they may now ask Congress to block the regulations (Wall Street Journal, 4/12).