Privacy Proposal Prompts Concerns

March 25, 2002 ( - Democrats had a strong and visceral reaction to proposed health privacy rules issued by the Bush administration last week.

As written, sweeping Clinton-era health privacy rules scheduled to take effect next year would require patients to sign a consent form before doctors and hospitals could disclose private information about their health, even for treatment or payment.  However, last Thursday, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson outlined a new proposal that would essentially retain the status quo, requiring no consent forms for the disclosure of that information.
The implementation of the privacy rules, originally scheduled to take effect in April 2003, was not changed.

Advising Consent

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) said on Friday that, ‘The Administration has effectively gutted the cornerstone of the medical records privacy regulation: the requirement that patients give consent before their records are released. This is part of an unfortunate pattern of putting the interests of corporate American first and the interests of American families last.’ 

Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also noted that he intends not only to hold hearings on the matter, but to introduce legislation that would ‘reverse this ill-considered action.’

Private Parts

The rules in their current form would:

  • prohibit health care providers from disclosing patient information for reasons unrelated to health services 
  • establish civil and criminal penalties for violators 
  • give patients the right to inspect and copy their records and to ask for corrections.

Last year, the Bush administration allowed the rules to go forward but promised a variety of changes. The new proposal would become final after a 30-day comment period starts next week.


The administration defended the proposal Friday, terming the original consent requirements ‘unworkable,’ and saying that without it patients would have run into problems in getting efficient access to health care, specifically:

  • pharmacists filling prescriptions 
  • referrals to specialists and hospitals  
  • providing treatment over the telephone, and 
  • emergency medical providers. 

Starting Over?

Under the revised proposal, doctors and other health care providers would only be required to notify patients of privacy policies, while only showing a ‘good faith effort’ to obtain written acknowledgment of those rights.

Still, according to the Associated Press, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri) said the proposed changes could discourage people from seeking sensitive medical treatment and open the door to discrimination in access to health care and insurance coverage.

Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) said the change ‘is not going to occur without significant, significant opposition,’ according to the Associated Press.  ‘We’re going to insist the people have the right to say no,’ Dodd said.