MEDICAL PRIVACY: Shalala Urges Congressional Action
"Although Congress has had plenty of time to act" on its self- imposed deadline for enacting medical privacy legislation, and may still pass a bill this fall, HHS is preparing to establish "a new rule to protect the privacy of Americans' medical records," Secretary Donna Shalala writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. While "almost any American ... will tell you personal health records should be used to heal, but never to reveal," Shalala indicates that "federal law does more today to guarantee the privacy of our choices of video rentals than it does our personal medical histories." Calling it a "common-sense project," she says that the plan is built on the following five principles:
- Boundaries: Personal health records should be used only for health-related activities, while employers should be barred from using information to make personnel decisions.
- Security: People should feel safe giving information to health care providers, who will be required to protect it from misuse and improper disclosure.
- Consumer control: People should be able to access their medical history, know how it is being used and how to correct misinformation, similar to credit history policies.
- Accountability: Anyone who misuses information will be subject to criminal punishment.
- Public responsibility: The need for privacy must be weighed against national priorities, such as the use of information by public health agencies to prevent infectious disease outbreaks.
Not Enough Protection
Noting that privacy regulations established by HHS will only pertain to electronic records, a Las Vegas Sun editorial states that "Congress has a chance to redeem itself and create privacy legislation when it reconvenes in September." The editorial refers to a survey conducted earlier this year by the California HealthCare Foundation, which found that while 60% of 1,000 people interviewed trusted their health care provider to keep their records confidential, only 35% expressed the same trust in their health plans. With the increasing access to information through computers, the editorial calls on Congress to "take action to preserve the privacy of medical records. ... Congress should guarantee that medical records aren't shared outside a physician's office unless the patient gives his permission." While Congress will be busy this fall with HMO legislation, tax cuts and the federal budget, the editorial urges Congress not to "overlook this important issue" (8/26).