Shortly after the inauguration of President Bush, healthcare industry organizations mobilized successfully to urge Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to delay implementation of final federal medical privacy regulations. These regulations are the result of a provision in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), signed into law in 1996. There is currently no comprehensive federal law that protects the confidentiality of medical records. Without such safeguards, personal medical information could be vulnerable to unauthorized use and exposure. Some people may choose not to access healthcare out of fear that their medical information could result in loss of insurance, employment, housing, or other forms of discrimination.
The provision called on Congress to pass comprehensive health privacy legislation by August 21, 1999. If Congress missed this deadline, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services would be required to draft federal regulations protecting the confidentiality of medical records. Congress did miss its deadline, so then-HHS Secretary Donna Shalala issued a draft of proposed regulations in late 1999.
After months of public comment (which resulted in over 52,000 comments from both healthcare industry and consumers), final regulations were developed and released on December 20, 2000. They were scheduled to become effective on February 26 of this year. However, Secretary Thompson recently announced that he is postponing the effective date of the regulations until April 14, 2001. In addition, he has opened another public comment period until March 30.
The final regulations, while not perfect or as comprehensive as we would like, are seen as fair and workable by most consumer advocates, including Project Inform. They are the result of much hard work and compromise, and take into account many concerns identified in the draft. For example, while the draft regulations only protected electronic records, the final rule includes written, hard-copy records as well.
Privacy advocates are concerned that the delay in implementating these regulations, and the reopened public comment period, could be a step in weakening the original regulations. It is clear that in the current political environment any changes made to these regulations will not be positive ones for healthcare consumers.
For more information about this issue, what health privacy advocates are doing to support the current regulations, and to learn how you can submit your own public comments, go to www.healthprivacy.org. If you do not have internet access, call Ryan Clary at 415-558-8669 x224 and ask for written information to be mailed or faxed to you.
Back to the What's New? March 2001 Table of Contents.