NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A Deadline Missed In The Medical-Privacy Debate

August 20, 1999

In a 1996 law, Congress set a goal of August 21, 1999, for enacting medical-record privacy protections. But today, on the eve of that deadline, there is still no legislation.

A Senate bill and two efforts in the House are receiving renewed attention. But if Congress doesn't act, the Department of Health and Human Services will propose its own regulations to curb possible abuse and misuse of what can be the most sensitive details of a person's life.

If Congress fails to act this fall, HHS will take up the matter in February.

  • Every note that doctors scribble or prescription they write can pass through dozens of hands and can be added to multiple computer data bases.
  • Recently, there were cases in which pharmacies sold prescription records to drug marketers, employers perused results of fertility treatments and a hospital accidentally posted thousands of patient records on the Internet.
  • A recent study for the California HealthCare Foundation showed that only one-third of U.S. adults trust health plans to maintain confidentiality.
  • One in six people are so worried about leaks that they ask their doctors to lie, or go to different doctors, or don't seek treatment at all -- especially for sensitive conditions such as mental illnesses or communicable diseases.

Observers say that one of the reasons political action has not been taken thus far is that there has been no groundswell of public demand for privacy protections. Many Americans have just assumed that safeguards are already in place.

Source: Shailagh Murray, "On Medical-Privacy Issue, the Doctor Finally May Be In," Wall Street Journal, August 20, 1999.


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