New Privacy Regulations Almost Certain To Be Tested

The Bush administration is moving to loosen health-privacy protections by requiring that providers tell patients about their privacy rights and make only a "good-faith effort" to get a written acknowledgement of that notice. The new regulations, which became official on Aug. 14, are expected to take effect April 2003.

The insurance industry, which lobbied hard for changes that make the rules less restrictive than those first proposed by the Clinton administration, says that they were needed to accelerate the transfer of medical records, thereby improving patient outcomes.

Health-privacy advocates, however, view the changes as a setback for patient confidentiality.

The rules, which apply to all electronic records but not those kept on paper, allow the sharing of medical information only for treatment purposes. In addition, they say that the names should be left out whenever possible.

"There's going to be a lot of confusion going forward," Kazuhiko Sano, an attorney at JK Health Information Privacy Advisors, tells the San Francisco Chronicle. "We're going to have to see how the courts and HHS wind up interpreting these things in the future."

Insurers are not the only ones happy with the changes — hospitals and providers are also applauding what they call a balanced approach to privacy.

"We're all in favor of privacy, but there comes a point in time where you're so private you can't do anything," says Craig Lanway, chief information officer for Hill Physicians Medical Group in California.

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