PRIVACY: Consumer Apathy to Blame for Lack of Action
Although Congress' effort to pass a medical privacy bill before tomorrow's deadline has "sputtered," part of the blame may lie with "ordinary Americans," who claim to fear an invasion of their privacy but fail to communicate with their lawmakers, today's Wall Street Journal reports. "The lack of an outside force makes this a really difficult issue," said Joe Karpinski, spokesperson for the Senate health committee closest to hashing out a comprehensive medical privacy bill with bipartisan support. "No one says, 'When are you (going) to pass this?' No presidential candidates talk about it. Even the professional groups haven't really gotten engaged," Karpinski added. Admittedly, "medical privacy is difficult terrain," the Wall Street Journal reports, as lawmakers must navigate state laws, many of which "are targeted to specific conditions such as HIV and genetic disorders." Another sticking point includes patients' right to sue, and some antiabortion members of Congress are wary of language that they believe would preempt state parental notification laws and allow minors to access their own medical records without the consent of a parent or guardian. The conflicting issues largely mean that health care consumer groups are calling for protections but are butting up against "bigger battles such as Internet privacy and managed care reform." Janlori Goldman, director of Georgetown University's Health Privacy Project, also singles out the "ordinary American" as one of the problems, citing a recent California HealthCare Foundation study that found only one-third of U.S. adults trust their health plans to maintain confidentiality, but that "few lawmakers hear from their constituents seeking protection for their medical records." Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said, "The problem is people don't realize when their privacy is being violated. They feel strongly about the issue, but they won't speak up until something happens to them."
Show Me the Law
On Capitol Hill, the Senate committee's effort, headed by Sens. Jim Jeffords (R-VT) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT), seems "closest" to turning out comprehensive legislation and winning support from its two "wild cards," Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and antiabortion Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS). At the same time, two efforts in the House seem to be gaining steam, one backed by Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA), another by a group of Democrats including Rep. Henry Waxman (CA), Gary Condit (CA) and John Dingell (MI). But Goldman says her group will "believe that when they see it." Over time, she said, "There have been lots of bills and lots of hearings, where everyone pounds the podium and says, 'Yes, we're going to have legislation.' And then nothing" (Murray, 8/20).