Electronic Medical Record Regulations Reviewed

WASHINGTON (05/02/2000) - 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, Michigan.

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