Bush Administration Stuns Health-Care Industry, Allows Medical Privacy Regulations To Go Into Effect

April 12, 2001 12:00 am

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Thursday, April 12, 2001

WASHINGTON – Reacting to this morning’s surprise decision by the Bush Administration to allow medical privacy regulations to go into effect, the American Civil Liberties Union today claimed victory against the health care industry, which lobbied hard against the regulations, but warned the Bush Administration not to dilute either patient consent rules or the privacy rights of minors seeking sensitive medical services.

“The clear and present need for greater medical privacy protections has triumphed over the lobbying power of the health-care industry,” said Ronald W. Weich, an ACLU legislative consultant. “The American people have waited too long for federal protection of what is, ultimately, the most sensitive of personal issues – medical privacy.”

In reaction to public signals that the Administration would delay the implementation of the new medical privacy regulations, the ACLU and Public Citizen had threatened to file a federal lawsuit. This morning, however, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement saying that it would immediately begin the process of implementing the regulations, which were first proposed by the Clinton Administration last December.

In comments filed with HHS last month, the ACLU said it strongly opposed any effort to delay implementation of the regulations. While not perfect, the ACLU said the new rules represented a major advance in the struggle for medical privacy by establishing for the first time under federal law the principle that medical information may not be disclosed without the consent of the patient.

This morning’s statement by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, however, also presented ominous signs about the Administration’s intent to weaken the privacy regulation. “The law has long allowed minors to obtain confidential sensitive health care services in areas such as mental health, substance abuse or abortion,” said Catherine Weiss, Director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “The leading medical organizations recognize that without these protections, minors will not get the health care they need. The Bush Administration’s signal that they will undo these protections is immoral, dangerous and unconstitutional.”

Weich said that if the department does change the regulations in any way, it should strengthen them to better protect medical privacy. “One area that needs to be addressed,” he said, “is the virtually unfettered access to medical records by law enforcement agents that the regulations allow.”

HHS said this morning that more than 24,000 comments were filed in the last month, most of which urged the Bush Administration to protect medical records privacy by allowing the rules to go into effect. The ACLU said that it believed that approximately half of those came from ACLU online activists who were urged to write to the Administration last month.

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