Health Care Industry Seeks to Weaken Privacy Rules

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- The health care industry is lobbying the Bush administration to delay, change or kill regulations protecting the privacy of medical records.

Hospitals, insurance companies, health maintenance organizations and medical researchers say the rules, issued in the final weeks of the Clinton administration, would impose costly new burdens. But members of Congress say privacy protections are immensely popular with consumers.

Bush administration officials, caught in the middle, say they are looking for ways to revise and simplify the Clinton rules, which are scheduled to take effect on Feb. 26.

Consumer advocates describe the rules as a milestone in the history of American medicine, the first comprehensive federal standards for medical privacy.

Under the rules, health care providers must obtain written consent from patients for the use or disclosure of information in their medical records. The rules will affect virtually every doctor, patient, hospital, pharmacy and insurance plan in the United States.

Critics say the Clinton administration went overboard in pursuing a worthy goal. The rules, they say, are too prescriptive and, in many ways, unworkable. Health care providers of all types have flooded the new administration with requests to shelve the rules or reopen the rule-making process to solicit public comment on the need for major changes.

John P. Houston, a lawyer at UPMC Health System, affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, said hospitals would have to buy expensive information technology, hire and train employees and rewrite contracts with hundreds of suppliers to comply with the rules.

The rules, he said, are so restrictive that they "could impede patient care and disrupt essential operations" of hospitals.

Pharmacists say the consent requirement would be impractical in many situations. How, they ask, can they obtain written consent from a patient whose doctor phones in a prescription that is picked up by a neighbor or a relative?

"Thirty-five to 40 percent of all prescriptions are picked up by someone other than the patient, in most cases a family member," said Todd Andrews, a spokesman for CVS Corp., which filled 300 million prescriptions at 4,100 drugstores in 31 states last year.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the rules were causing "lots of unanticipated difficulties." Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he was "stunned and terribly worried" by the rules. In many parts of Kansas, he said, hospitals are short of doctors and nurses and are "struggling to keep their doors open," so they cannot cope with the new regulations.

But Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said voters would punish politicians who weaken privacy protections. "The public cares about this issue very, very much," he said.

Under the rules, every health care provider must appoint a "privacy official" to develop privacy policies and procedures. Patients would, for the first time, have a federal right to inspect and copy their medical records and could propose corrections. …

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