Congress Fails to Act on Medical Records Privacy Your Data Shared Easily by Others

Article excerpt

Two months ago, Mimi, 42, walked into her pharmacy in Fairfield, Conn., to pick up a refill of the medicine she'd taken for years for her migraine headaches -- and stormed out with a headache larger than she'd ever imagined.

She couldn't get a refill, her druggist told her, because a company that manages pharmacy benefits had decided she was taking too many kinds of medicine. Mimi, a mother and parttime psychotherapist who asked that her full name not be used, called two of her doctors.

She found that the company, York Prescription Benefits, had written each a letter listing every medication she was taking for asthma, joint pain and allergies, along with the migraines.

"I felt violated because the [company] did all this behind my back," she said. "It made it look like they were insinuating I was a possible drug addict."

York is part of a relatively new breed known as pharmacy benefit managers, which take a different view of such situations. They say maintaining computerized records about patients' drugs allows them to recommend less expensive medications, prevent people from taking a drug too long and warn people who may be taking a dangerous combination of medicines.

The dispute illustrates the potential benefits and dangers of trying to use medical information in new ways. It also shows why it's been so hard for the federal government to develop national rules to keep Americans' medical records private.

Congress on Saturday missed its own deadline, set three years ago, for passing a medical privacy law.

The Department of Health and Human Services has until February to put federal privacy rules into effect. But HHS faces the same quandary that befuddled Congress: how to protect Americans' most intimate medical secrets while harnessing new information technology. …

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