Bush administration to implement medical privacy rules

Thursday, April 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration said Thursday that it would immediately implement sweeping rules giving patients their first federal right to guard health records.

President Bush said he decided to let the rules crafted by the Clinton administration take effect, although he directed a change giving parents the right to see their children's records.

``I believe that we must protect both vital health care services and the right of every American to have confidence that his or her personal medical records will remain private,'' Bush said in a statement.

The rules, issued in the final weeks of the Clinton administration, require doctors, hospitals and other health care providers to get permission before disclosing personal patient information. Patients will have the right to inspect and request corrections to their medical records. And the rules create the first federal fines and prison time for those who improperly disclose medical information.

Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, said the Bush administration will modify the regulations by issuing guidelines and making changes that are allowed within the first year. These modifications, however, do not appear to change its core elements.

Thompson said the department will make it clear that doctors can share medical information with specialists treating the same patients and pharmacists can fill prescriptions over the phone.

The most substantive change detailed Thursday would give parents the right to information about their children's health, including records on abortion. Disagreement over this issue was one of only a few disputes that prevented the Senate from acting on medical privacy, forcing HHS to take over the issue.

Under the Clinton rule, doctors and hospitals would decide whether to disclose a minor's health information unless state law directed otherwise.

The rules have been attacked by hospitals, insurance companies, drug manufacturers and others as too complicated and expensive to implement and health care industry groups had hoped that the Bush administration would make significant changes before implementing them.

But Thompson said Thursday that the rules must go forward.

``We have laws in this country to protect the personal information contained in bank, credit card and other financial records. Our citizens must not wait any longer for protection of the most personal of all information _ their health records,'' he said in a statement.

Privacy advocates were thrilled with the move.

``The administration did the right thing, even though the industry waged an incredibly nasty and aggressive campaign to kill these regulations,'' said Janlori Goldman, who directs the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University.

An industry official said the changes promised will make the rules more workable.

``The administration has to work quickly to correct the problems it has identified,'' said Mary Grealey, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council, which represents health care industry groups.

Upon taking office, Thompson put the rules on hold for 60 days and solicited comments on the issue that has been intensely debated by lawmakers and policy-makers for years. The review period expires on Saturday, and HHS has already received more than 24,000 comments.

The rules allow the HHS secretary to make changes to the rules for up to a year after they take effect, and Thompson said he will use that time to consider changes. He said HHS will also issue guidelines to clarify some confusion about the regulations.