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What's Congress Doing About Medical Privacy?

June 21, 1999

Last winter we warned our readers that if Congress did not pass a medical privacy law by August 21, 1999, the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) would be required to establish privacy regulations by February 21, 2000. HHS would create a unique health identifier to tag and track every American's medical records.

"HHS privacy regulations could jeopardize medical privacy for all," warns Twila Brase, President of Citizens' Council on Health Care. She points out that the department's recommendations include the "public responsibility" to allow government access to medical records without consent for the following national priorities:

  • Health-care system oversight,
  • Public health,
  • Medical research,
  • Law enforcement,
  • State health databases.

This spring, Health Freedom Watch reported that the 1999 budget bill included a provision that prevented funding for the unique health identifier until Congress approved of its specifics. What is Congress doing about medical privacy? Will HHS be permitted to implement its recommendations?

So far, Congress has introduced at least four medical privacy bills in the House and Senate, including:

  • (S. 578) Health Care Personal Information Nondisclosure Act of 1999,
  • (S. 881) Medical Information Protection Act of 1999, and
  • (S. 573/H.R. 1057) Medical Information Privacy and Security Act.

Whether a final bill will truly give consumers the ability to maintain their medical privacy remains uncertain. We will have to wait until a final bill is revised and reported out of committee before we'll know how much it guards Americans' medical privacy.

According to the aide to Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah) who worked on the Bennett medical privacy bill, Congress is expected to mark up (that is, make changes and add amendments to) a bill on May 25. "A final bill will probably pull pieces from the Leahy/Kennedy bill [S.573], the Jeffords/Dodd bill [S.578] and Bennett's bill [S.881]," said Mike Neilson. [Note: Congress has not marked up a bill as of June 21, 1999. The Bureau of National Affairs reports that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has delayed markup of a privacy bill indefinitely.]

This article was originally published in the May/June issue of Health Freedom Watch.