PATIENT IDS: Hearing Solicits Opinion On National IDs
Critics of a new federal plan to create medical ID numbers for all Americans were pitted against the concept's backers yesterday, as both sides sought to convince the Department of Health and Human Services of the plan's merits and pitfalls. At the government's first public hearing on the plan yesterday in Chicago, proponents said the system would allow researchers to track disease trends, but critics said the national medical database would offer too many opportunities for breaches of patient privacy. While voicing "qualified support," Shelly Ebbert of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago said her group "would not support any system for unique identifiers without the implementation of safeguards against the misuse of confidential medical information." And Blue Cross and Blue Shield's Richard Landen said the health insurer would remain "cautious" of the plan until HHS officials made provisions for patient privacy (Pallasch/Grumman/James, Chicago Tribune, 7/21).
Mandated in 1996 health insurance portability legislation, the plan has run into roadblocks as federal officials consider the pros and cons of a nationwide patient database. And HHS officials say they are treading lightly until they find the best way to make the plan a reality. "We're trying to figure out what's the best way to go about this and whether it's even possible to get consensus," said HHS spokesperson Campbell Gardett. "It's a very sensitive issue because it's a national number, which people are nervous about anyway, and it's (about) their medical records which no one wants public so it's going to take a lot of thought," he added (Rubin, Los Angeles Times, 7/21). Yesterday's hearing was one of several at which the public will tell officials what they think of the project.
A Good Thing?
Proponents said yesterday the plan could not only be a boon to national studies of disease trends, but could simplify the process of tracking down patient data. "If you show up in the emergency department at 2 a.m. you'd like to know that I as your physician have some idea what your medical problems are," said Dr. John Lumpkin, director of the Illinois Public Health Department and head of the HHS panel. "If you are unconscious or if you just don't know the details of your medical procedure, it would be nice for me to be able to get access to that," he added (Gillis, Chicago Sun-Times, 7/21). But opponents said the data could fall into the wrong hands, leading to misuse or even abuse of patient information. "Once everyone's required to use a government-issued health identification card, it may become impossible for any American citizen to walk down the street without being forced to produce that card on demand by a policeman," said Washington, DC, information policy consultant Robert Gellman. "You won't be able to use a credit card, cash a check, fly on an airplane, check into a hotel, go to school or enter or leave the United States without showing that card," he claimed (Wiseman, USA Today, 7/21). One doctor who testified yesterday, the Mayo Clinic's Dr. Christopher Chute, said a well-managed system might be a boon to patient confidentiality, which he said often takes a hit in today's "paper environment, which has no ability for audit or usage trail, as it's currently managed" (Coleman, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/21). HHS will hold more public hearing in Washington this fall, and officials plan to publish a notice in the Federal Register soliciting written comments on the plan (Scully, Washington Times, 7/21).