Bill would protect patient privacy

Legislation introduced in Congress last week calls for overriding the patchwork of state privacy laws that could make an electronic national health information exchange a practical impossibility.

The bill calls for a single set of national rules to protect the privacy of patients whose information is exchanged over a national health information network.

The bill, introduced last Thursday by Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), has the support of the e-Health Initiative, the American Health Information Management Association, the Federation of American Hospitals and other organizations. Drafts of H.R. 4157, the Health IT Promotion Act of 2005, have been circulating for several months.

Because Johnson is chairwoman of the health subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, her bill might stand a better chance of passage than others introduced in Congress this session. The bill was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee and to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which also has jurisdiction over health issues. Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.), chairman of the health subcommittee of Energy and Commerce, is one of the 31 co-sponsors of Johnson’s bill.

The bill also would:

• Establish in law the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT, making the post permanent. Similar provisions are in most of the other pending health IT bills.

• Allow hospitals, groups of doctors and other organizations to supply physicians within formation technology tools for the purpose of reducing paperwork and exchanging information electronically. Some laws prohibit such giveaways, although the Department of Health and Human Services has proposed rules that would create limited exemptions for health IT.

• Require HHS to adopt updated standards for coding medical procedures and encounters, as of 2009.

• Require a report in 2007 on the activities of the American Health Information Community, the high-level public-private commission established by HHS this year.

• Require HHS to develop a strategic plan for health IT implementation.

The privacy provisions call for a study of the state privacy laws and rules. Such a study is under way. Then the bill would direct HHS to report whether a single national privacy rule is necessary and, if so, how that might be enacted. It would authorize HHS to issue national standards if Congress does not act within three years.

Johnson said the bill “will overcome some of the key obstacles that have slowed our progress toward adoption of a national, interoperable electronic system.”

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