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Jewish World Review April 13, 2001 / 20 Nissan, 5761

Keith Perine

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Consumer Reports

Bush lets medical privacy rule take effect -- IN what Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said Thursday is a "a bold and definitive step," President Bush has decided to allow a sweeping medical records privacy rule issued in the waning days of the Clinton administration to take effect as scheduled.

"President Bush wants strong patient privacy protections put in place now," Thompson said. "Our citizens must not wait any longer for protection of the most personal of all information - their health records."

Congress authorized the rule under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which required Health and Human Services to issue it after Congress failed to act by 1999. The Clinton administration issued the rule last December, after it received more than 54,000 comments from hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and patients' advocates.

As written, the rule requires in part that health-care providers, health plans and health-care clearinghouses obtain written consent from patients before using their medical data for purposes of treatment, payment or health-care operations - and even then, the rule requires that they share the "minimum necessary" amount of data.

The rule also requires covered entities to form contracts with business associates, such as billing-services firms, to ensure further privacy protections. Most health-care providers and insurers will have two years to comply with the rule. The HIPAA statute gives Thompson the authority to amend the rule after it takes effect, and Thompson signaled that he will pay particular attention to patient-consent provisions in the rule.

"We're very surprised that the administration decided to go forward with this rule, and we're encouraged," says Joy Pritts, a spokeswoman for the Health Privacy Project, which opposed any delay in implementing the rules.

Although the final rule was published in December, the Clinton administration failed to complete formal notification to Congress, as required by law. That error wasn't discovered until February, and it pushed the rule's effective date to April. Thompson opened a new 30-day public comment period in March, during which time his department was deluged with more than 24,000 additional comments.

The decision is a rare setback for the private sector, which has been reaping the benefits of the Bush administration's concerted effort to delay or scrap dozens of last-minute rules left over from the Clinton era. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have already scuttled rules governing arsenic levels in drinking water and workplace ergonomics.

Thursday's decision is the first tangible sign that the Bush administration could be serious about protecting data privacy.

Melinda Hatton, an American Hospital Association spokeswoman, said, "We're very disappointed by (the Bush administration's) failure to delay the effective date of the rule, but we're also heartened by Secretary Thompson's commitment to work quickly to modify it."

The association had asked Thompson to delay the compliance date for the rule to 2005. Hatton says the group's member hospitals have been gearing up to follow the rule, but that the two-year window doesn't afford them enough time.

Keith Perine writes for The Industry Standard. Comment by clicking here.


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