MEDICAL PRIVACY: White House Seeks Compromise
Months after Congress missed its self-imposed deadline for passing medical privacy legislation, HHS is "putting the final touches" on new regulations that could be issued "possibly by President Clinton, in the next few weeks," the Wall Street Journal reports today. Although Clinton has pushed Congress to pass its own bill, privacy legislation has stalled for months as lawmakers debate tangential issues. Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee Chair James Jeffords (R-VT) has vowed to keep a medical privacy bill off the Senate floor until opposing sides on the abortion issue decide whether minors' medical records should remain private. For its part, the Clinton administration has forged ahead, crafting legislation that seeks a "middle ground on the contentious issue of law enforcement officials' access to individuals' health information." The new rules from the Clinton administration could mark a shift from its earlier position that law enforcement officials should be exempted from any new restrictions. That proposal was met with a "storm of criticism from privacy advocates, patient groups" and others who have "long argued for greater restraint." The Wall Street Journal points to several indications that the administration may be looking to compromise. In a letter to Jeffords, Jon Jennings, acting assistant attorney general, stated, "We support reasonable restrictions on law enforcement access to and use of confidential health information." The letter to Jeffords stated that the Department of Justice would prohibit the use of medical information "except for officials activities and codify current practices by requiring a 'lawful compulsory process' such as a search warrant, grand jury subpoena, administrative summons, or other instrument." In a speech at Yale University earlier this month, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala argued that giving a "free pass" to law enforcement agents to access an individual's medical records is a bad idea, however, she added, "We must balance our protection of privacy with our public responsibility to support other national priorities" (Murray, Wall Street Journal, 10/25).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.