Medical record regs reviewed

The Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing 52,000 letters

that comment on HHS' proposed regulations to protect the privacy of electronic

medical records, but any final regulation is months or even years away.

The review is the latest in a series of actions that would put a firewall

around an individual's personal medical records. The new rules, mandated

by Congress, would represent the first federal effort to safeguard the privacy

of medical records.

But in some cases, the rules would permit health providers to release private

health data to employers, researchers and government data banks without

a patient's consent, critics say.

The issue is being widely debated on Capitol Hill and among public interest

groups, but no one has come up with a foolproof system. At least five bills

on the privacy of medical records are pending in Congress, but none appear

to be going anywhere.

On April 26, an HHS official testified before Congress that its regulations

are attempting "to protect privacy even where it cannot regulate directly."

"The proliferation of electronic records and managed care arrangements has

raised questions about the extent to which individuals' health care information

is protected from inappropriate disclosure," HHS official Janet Heinrich

told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

On April 30, President Clinton promised better safeguards for medical records

and data that detail personal spending habits. "We can't let breakthroughs

in technology break down the walls of privacy," Clinton said in commencement

remarks at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Mich.

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