Health information organizations laud bill

Legislation protects privacy of patient information

For the first time, legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate would establish the confidentiality of individually identifiable health information. The "Medical Information Protection Act of 1998" was introduced Oct. 9 by Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-UT) and cosponsored by Sen. Connie Mack (R-FL).

"The bill strikes a hard to achieve balance between protecting the confidentiality of a patient’s health information while not impeding the provision of patient care or the operations of the nation’s health care delivery system," says Kathleen A. Frawley, JD, MS, RRA, vice president for legislative and public policy services at American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) in Chicago.

Congress must pass legislation governing electronic health information before August 1999, in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. If Congress does not act by that time, the responsibility for the regulation passes to the secretary of Health and Human Services in Washington, DC.

Bennett mentioned the support of several organizations in his address to the Senate. In addition to AHIMA, he mentioned the American Hospital Association (AHA) in Washington, DC.

Confidentiality is a critical concern

"Comprehensive confidentiality legislation is critical to thousands of patient who come through the doors of our nation’s hospitals each day," says AHA president Dick Davidson. "We commend Sen. Bennett for his leadership and guidance on an issue that is relevant to everyone."

Here are some of the provisions of the bill:

• It gives patients in all states access to their medical records.

• It establishes full federal preemption of all state confidentiality laws, with the exception of some public health laws. It also sets a uniform standard to eliminate the current variety of state statutes and regulations.

• It recognizes the need for confidential medical information to move appropriately and in a timely manner within groups and systems of providers without impeding the quality of care.

• It broadly applies not only to providers, payers, and employers, but also to law enforcement agencies. The bill sets a national standard for how law enforcement officials can gain access to confidential patient records.

• It contains criminal and civil sanctions to provide remedies against wrongful disclosure of health information.

AHIMA has worked closely with Sen. Bennett for several years on confidentiality issues, says Jack Segal, AHIMA’s director of public relations. To stress the importance of the need for confidentiality legislation, AHIMA released a flowchart that shows the large number of individuals and organizations that have access to a patient’s medical information. (See chart, p. 190.)

"One of the things we wanted to do [with the flowchart] was to educate the public, the media, and members of Congress about who has access to medical records and the extent that they have access to them," Segal says. "We thought the chart would be helpful in terms of moving the discussion forward."