USA Today Debates Patient Privacy Issue
"[I]ntense lobbying by groups that benefit from the status quo has delayed reforms" of patient privacy guidelines, and the Bush administration's decision to review the federal privacy rules issued by the Clinton administration is "compound[ing]" that delay, a USA Today editorial states. Critics of the regulations, including health insurers, pharmacists and marketers, are promulgating "horror stories" that depict the rules as "needlessly heavy-handed and costly." But "most" of these claims "wither under scrutiny," the editorial states. One such scenario put forth by the rules' opponents -- that hospitals will need to have "soundproof walls" to prevent the disclosure of private information -- does not hold up, the editorial says, since the guidelines would only require "reasonable privacy safeguards ... such as keeping voices down." The editorial counters two more opposing arguments that raise concerns regarding whether family members can pick up prescriptions for sick relatives and rules concerning doctor-to-doctor communication about treatment. The editorial states that the rules do allow family members to get prescriptions and that restrictions on physician communication are "lifted" when information is needed for patient treatmnet. Even though critics say the guidelines "need a fresh scrubbing," they "are more likely looking for ways to weaken the regulations," the editorial states, adding that many of the rules' opponents would like to see a federal rule that "overturns stronger state privacy mandates." The editorial concludes, "Five years after Congress promised better privacy protections for medical records, it's patients who need to be accommodated -- not those lobbying for further delays" (USA Today, 3/20).
In an opposing USA Today op-ed, Mary Grealy writes that although "leaders of the health care industry support strong protections of patient privacy and don't want to delay the proposed federal regulations indefinitely," they do want to fix "a number of problems" posed by the rules. Grealy, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council, writes that the regulations issued by the Clinton administration contain provisions that "could cause patients inconvenience, at best, and serious harm, at worst." Such provisions, she writes, could lead to doctors' offices being unable to send reminder notices about cancer screenings, immunizations or other prevention treatments. In addition, Grealy continues, pharmacists may not be able to fill certain prescriptions or give medicines to relatives of patients, and physicians will have to "second-guess themselves" about what patient information they can disclose to another "health care professional." These situations and others caused by the privacy regulations "could delay and disrupt treatment," Grealy writes, and omissions made because of limitations on disclosure could "lea[d] to the wrong course of treatment." Limitations on communication of patient information between providers are "unworkable, unnecessary and, in a hospital setting, potentially harmful to patients," Grealy states. She concludes, "HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson was wise to seek additional input. The rules can be fixed. It's far more important to get them right than to rush" (Grealy, USA Today, 3/20).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.