Privacy Groups Try to Block HIPAA Disclosures

April 11, 2003 ( - A coalition of patient groups and privacy supporters is trying to block a new federal health privacy law from taking effect next week by filing a federal court lawsuit.

>According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the suit charged that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), gives insurance companies, drug companies and police more access to individual medical records. HIPAA dictates how medical records are handled by doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and other health-care providers.

Under the privacy rule, patients will have the power to approve the release of their medical information to employers and life insurers, but they will have no say when it comes to releasing the information to health plans or billing companies.

No Patient Consent Needed

Plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to throw out the parts of HIPAA that say patient consent is not needed for sharing medical information with health plans or billing companies. In addition, any group doing business with health providers, such as consultants, lawyers or pharmaceutical companies, would have unfettered access to the records.

Under the rule, medical information can also be disclosed if the patient was unconscious or could not be identified in a hospital, and for other cases such as some public-health activities, and organ and tissue donation. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also has access to the records. The suit was filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Jim Pyles, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Inquirer that health information could be widely disseminated without patients having the power to stop it. “People are disclosing information about their family members, marital problems, procreation issues that people thought would remain private,” Pyles said. “Now this information can flow without an individual’s consent.”

Pyles also complained about provisions forcing those alleging privacy violations to take their cases to HHS.   “People don’t like to disclose their information to the federal government,” he said. “They’d rather disclose the information to a private lawyer where there is attorney-client privilege.”

Also, US Representative Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) has introduced federal legislation to require patients’ permission before their records could be used or disclosed for treatment, payment and health-care operations.