MEDICAL PRIVACY: Senate Committee Begins Hearings Today
The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee is scheduled to begin hearings today on medical privacy protections, but introduction of the primary bill up for consideration has been delayed. The legislation, sponsored by committee Chair Jim Jeffords (R-VT) and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT), "would create the first federal protection for health records, imposing criminal penalties for improper disclosure of identifiable records for most nonhealth purposes," the AP/Boston Globe reports. However, opponents are criticizing the legislation because they contend "it would continue to allow police too much access and prohibit most stronger state laws." In addition, privacy advocates contend that the bill contains "vague language that could allow information to be released to people out to sell products to patients" (2/26). A bill offering broader protections, sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), would require "law enforcement to get a court order before seizing personal records," the AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch reports (Meckler, 2/26).
The Washington Post reports Jeffords chose to delay official introduction of his legislation in the wake of the news that Giant Food Inc. and the CVS pharmacy chain were providing prescription information to a Massachusetts marketing company that solicits customers to get their prescriptions refilled (O'Harrow Jr., 2/26). Bennett said the bill "is 'pretty much set' on confidentiality rules for actual providers of medical care." However, he said, "There are still areas of concern about companies that handle private medical information." Giant, CVS and Elensys, the marketing company in question, were invited to testify at today's hearing. All three declined the invitation (CongressDaily/A.M., 2/25). In a prepared release, Jeffords said, "In light of the events of the past two weeks surrounding the practice of local pharmacies ... I decided to postpone the introduction of the Medical Information Protection Act to make sure that the bill adequately addresses the need to prohibit the selling or profit-making from the exchange of an individual's personal health information" (Washington Post, 2/26).
Janlori Goldman, director of Georgetown University Medical Center's Health Privacy Project, is expected to testify before the committee today that protecting privacy is "critical to improving health care in the United States." According to her prepared testimony, she will argue that without privacy laws, "people are likely to withhold information from their doctors, pay out-of-pocket for services to which they are entitled coverage, or avoid health care altogether." "Anxiety on the patient's part over unknown and coerced uses and disclosures of their records -- even for altruistic purposes -- leads people to withdraw from full, honest participation in their care. This privacy-protective behavior serves to jeopardize people's health care, as well as undermine the health care initiatives that rely on high quality information," she contends (GUMC release, 2/26).
Other witnesses scheduled to testify at today's hearing include Kansas Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius, National Breast Cancer Coalition Vice President Christine Brunswick and Julie McGowan, the director of the Dana Medical Library at the University of Vermont (committee release, 2/25).