ACLU Says Government's Bridge to the 21st Century Mired in Red Tape

February 3, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — In a sign that President Clinton’s bridge to the 21st Century is not yet on solid ground, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Department of Health and Human Services have been engaged in a three-month debate over the public’s ability to weigh in on proposed medical privacy regulations.

“This is a classic case of David vs. Goliath,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington Office. “The HHS system is set up so that it is far easier for special interest groups like the insurance industry to weigh in than it is for the average person to make their views known.”

The ACLU said that anything more than a cursory look at the procedures reveals that the Department of Health and Human Services has made it unnecessarily difficult for members of the general public – the very people who will be most affected by the proposed medical privacy regulations – to participate in the comments period on the regulations, which closes next week, on February 17. For example, HHS has a web site that is so complicated to use that it is virtually impossible to submit. And once a user locates the form, HHS has made it unnecessarily complicated and decidedly user unfriendly.

“Where is the opportunity for the American public to tell Secretary Shalala, ‘I am concerned,’ without having to submit their comments in quadruplicate or spend hours combing the agency’s web site?” Murphy asked. “It is time for the reality of how HHS operates to match the President’s promise of public participation.”

The American public has already signaled its deep interest in protecting the privacy of personal information. Just last year the FDIC’s proposal to require that banks monitor all of a customer’s transactions and report selected transactions to the federal government was met with an outcry. Over 200,000 letters, faxes and e-mails criticizing the proposal poured into the FDIC, leading the agency to withdraw its proposal.

“Though the President heralded the Internet’s promise of returning the government to the people, his administration does not seem to welcome its results: a more participatory democracy with an engaged citizenry speaking its mind,” Murphy said.

Repeated attempts to work with HHS to find a way to facilitate comments from the general public have led nowhere. And the ACLU said it is also concerned that HHS may actually have thrown away the comments of the more than 2,600 concerned citizens who faxed in letters from the ACLU’s web site,

The ACLU often alerts interested people to civil liberties issues pending before Congress and the Administration. After receiving a fax number from HHS, the ACLU supplied a letter on its web site for concerned Americans to personalize and fax to HHS, thanking the administration for taking this historic first step and urging further strengthening of the regulations in several areas.

It was only after 2,400 people had faxed in their comments that HHS first notified the ACLU that it would not accept comments via fax. That notification came not from the agency, but through a special agent of the Criminal Intelligence and Investigations section of the Federal Protective Service. (And it was only on Tuesday, February 1 that HHS notified the ACLU of its final decision regarding the faxes.)

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