June 1999 Bulletin

Congress moves ahead on medical records privacy

Congressional efforts to safeguard the confidentiality of patients' medical records are moving ahead to meet an August 21 deadline to either approve legislation or allow the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to set the rules of regulatory protection by Feb. 21, 2000.

Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, sponsor of one confidentiality bill, said he intended to take the best provisions of three medical records bill in his committee and send the legislation forward.

Sen. Jeffords and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) have reintroduced the Health Care Personal Information Nondisclosure (PIN) Act of 1999.

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) introduced the Medical Information Protection Act of 1999 (S.B. 881) which would create federal standards, that would preempt all related state laws to protect the confidentiality of all personal health information.

A privacy bill, S.B.573, has been introduced by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), but it proposes that stronger state laws prevail over federal laws.

The issue of whether federal law should preempt even stronger state laws, is a source of controversy. Health plans, employers and hospitals want uniformity of privacy laws throughout the nation, but consumer groups want stronger state laws to prevail.

All three bills attempt to preserve the use of health care data for research while protecting the individual's right to privacy.

The Justice Department is opposed to one element in all three bills-the requirement for a law enforcement agency to get a court order before accessing a person's medical information.

Meanwhile, protection of medical records privacy is the focus of one House bill and is included in two House bills on patient protection and managed care. Several more privacy bills may be introduced in the House.

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