Medical Privacy Rules Will Stand, with Caveats

April 13, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON, DC — In a rare defeat for business interests, the Bush administration said Thursday it would let a set of medical privacy regulations take effect immediately but would later seek to modify the regulations to address health care industry concerns, the Los Angeles Times reported.

According to the Times, the surprising decision clears the way for implementation of the first federal medical privacy protections.

The rules require doctors, hospitals and other health care providers to get a patient’s written permission before disclosing medical records.

The regulations, which will limit the disclosure and distribution of patient records, had been put on hold by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, who appeared sympathetic to industry complaints.

Bush issued a statement saying, “For the first time, patients will have full access to their medical records and more control over how their personal information will be used and disclosed.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and Public Citizen had threatened to sue HHS if the rules were delayed. Others suggested the White House was swayed by growing public anxiety over the privacy of personal information.

In a nod to industry groups, Bush asked HHS to recommend making the rules more appealing to hospitals, insurers and drug companies. In a move certain to stir controversy, Thompson said the agency would consider giving parents access to medical information about their children, including details about substance abuse, abortion and mental health problems.

Privacy advocates, while praising the Bush administration for allowing the rules to take effect, expressed concern and anger about the proposed modifications.

Many groups expressed opposition in particular to giving parents access to their children’s medical records, saying it would conflict with several state laws and might discourage teenagers from seeking treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and during pregnancy.

“The Bush administration’s signal that they will undo these protections is immoral, dangerous and unconstitutional,” said Catherine Weiss, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

The health care industry had launched an aggressive campaign to kill or postpone the privacy rules, which were mandated by Congress in the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Health care lobbyists had complained that the rules would cost billions of dollars to implement and might interfere with patient care by making it harder for doctors to discuss cases with one another.

Pharmacists claimed the rules would complicate even simple tasks, such as picking up a prescription at the drugstore.

Health care professionals must be in full compliance by 2003.

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