Clinton Backs Medical Privacy

President Clinton proposed regulations Friday to protect the privacy of Americans whose medical records might otherwise be available to employers, marketing firms and others who often see patients' most sensitive information without their consent.

"I will use the full authority of this office to create the first comprehensive national standards for the protection of medical records," Mr. Clinton told reporters Friday.

"The new rules I'm proposing would apply to all electronic medical records and to all health plans. It represents an unprecedented step toward putting Americans back in control of their own medical records," he said.

Existing laws protecting medical privacy vary widely from state to state. Currently, there are no federal guarantees that private information won't be passed to employers, sold to pharmaceutical companies or discussed in insurance company offices.

Congress debated the issue for years, but failed to meet a self-imposed Aug. 21 deadline for legislating new protections.

The administration will publish the proposal next week for review. It has until February 2000 to issue a final proposal, with the rules to take effect in 2002.

Under the proposed rules:

  • Patients would have the right to review and correct their medical records.
  • Health care providers would need patient's consent to give medical information to marketers or researchers.
The new federal rules would go beyond the weaker protections of some states, but would not override those with more restrictive laws.

The rules would apply only to electronic information, including computer records that have been copied to paper.

But the executive order cannot give patients the right to sue for privacy violations, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante. Only Congress can do that, and it's one of the issues holding up action on privacy rights.

The chairman of the Health, Education and Labor committee says he intends to keep trying.

"There is nothing more sensitive in many case than your medical records; what's wrong with you, what problems you have," said Sen. James Jeffords (R-VT). "And right now, you have better protection of what you rent at the video store than your medical records."

Customers of two pharmacy chains were shocked to discover last year that a person's most private and sensitive medical information can be bought and sold with few restrictions. The drugstores provided prescription information on thousands of customers to a marketing company that sent letters urging people to refill their medicine or try a new drug.

An expert on health privacy calls the administration's proposed rules important, but not tough enough.

"People are very concerned that their medical records are being used in ways that could hurt them," says Janlori Goldman, director of the Health Privacy Project. "People are very worried that their employers can see their medial records, and they're worried about how insurance companies might misuse information."

Until Congress acts or the president's privacy reforms take effect, highly profitable sales of medical information will continue -- without the knowledge of consumers.