ACLU Urges Congress to Protect Privacy of Medical Information From Financial Institutions

June 14, 2000 12:00 am

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEWednesday, June 14, 2000
WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union warned a House panel today about the dangers that result from the lack of strong privacy protections for medical records and urged that it strengthen a bill designed to protect medical information held by financial institutions.

“Privacy is vital in the health care context because trust is a fundamental component of the doctor-patient relationship,” said Ronald Weich, an ACLU Legislative Consultant, in testimony before the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services. “Patients are susceptible to humiliation and discrimination if their medical records are improperly disclosed.”

Weich testified, for example, that a Maryland banker used a medical database to determine which of his borrowers had been diagnosed with cancer and then attempted to terminate its lending relationship with them.

The ACLU urged the committee to pass legislation that would award the same protection to individually identifiable health information, when held by third parties such as financial institutions, as files now protected by attorney-client privilege. The need for such legislation became particularly acute after Congress passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which made sweeping reforms of the financial services industry without providing adequate protection for individually identifiable health information in the possession of financial institutions.

Weich praised Representative Leach (R-IA) for introducing a bill (H.R. 4585) that responds to the problems created by passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Although the ACLU believes the bill’s privacy safeguards should be broadened, it applauded the requirement that financial institutions provide notice to and obtain the consent of individuals before disclosing any of their identifiable health information.

“This bill is an important first step towards protecting the privacy of Americans’ personal health information from financial institutions,” Weich said. “Unfortunately the bill allows broad exceptions that undermine its goal of safeguarding the privacy of medical information.”

In his testimony, Weich explained a number of the ACLU’s concerns, including:

  • The lack of protection for the privacy rights of minors, particularly their reproductive health care.
  • The expansion of law enforcement and government investigative powers.
  • Individuals whose identifiable health information is wrongfully disclosed do not have the right to recover damages.
  • “The ACLU believes that patients own their medical records,” Weich said. “It follows that those records cannot be used for any purpose without the patient’s consent.”

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