ACLU Welcomes Clinton Medical Privacy Regulations; Says Major Components Must Be Strengthened

October 29, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Saying that the advent of the digital era has led to increased privacy risks, the American Civil Liberties Union applauded the medical privacy regulations unveiled today by President Clinton as a significant step forward, but said it would work to strengthen several of the proposal’s major components.

“President Clinton today recognized that patients own their medical records — not insurance companies and other corporations,” said Ronald Weich, an ACLU Legislative Consultant. “The regulations released today create a framework to ensure the privacy of those records.”

In a 1996 law, Congress imposed a three year deadline on itself to pass medical privacy legislation. If Congress had not acted by August 1999, the Secretary of Health and Human Services was then authorized to issue privacy rules. Congressional efforts to reach agreement on such legislation have repeatedly failed.

Although the ACLU said it was generally pleased with the proposed regulations released today, it intends to review them carefully and submit detailed suggestions during the two month comment period. The ACLU said it would also activate its grassroots network to help ensure that the final regulations are as strong as possible.

But even before today’s announcement the ACLU said it knew that provisions dealing with law enforcement access to medical records would need to be strengthened. The proposal would permit the police to obtain medical records without a judge’s approval.

“The police should not be able to say to a hospital, ‘give us Mr. Smith’s medical charts because we think something’s fishy,'” Weich said. “One of the most basic principles of American justice is that police must obtain a warrant from a judge before searching through your property. Medical records should be treated no differently.”

But Weich applauded the Administration for providing solid assurances that companies will not be able to sell patients’ records to marketers and other commercial interests.

“Americans have a right to expect that their medical records will be used only for their intended purpose: to help doctors provide the best medical care possible,” said Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director of the ACLU. “President Clinton’s regulations promise that people will not have to worry that their medical records will be used for other reasons, like becoming a marketing tool.”

For example, the ACLU said, under the regulations, a drug store would not be allowed to share with a credit card company information about what medications an individual is taking.

The ACLU also expressed its disappointment that Congress did not give the administration the power to allow Americans to sue companies that violate their privacy rights. The ACLU said it was also concerned that Congress did not allow the Administration to protect paper records.

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