Although Medical Privacy Regulations an Important First Step, ACLU Also Criticizes Loopholes

February 17, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration’s proposed medical privacy regulations include several loopholes that threaten the Administration’s laudable premise that medical information is private and may not be disclosed to third parties without prior consent, the American Civil Liberties Union said today.

“The Administration’s proposed regulations are an important first step toward comprehensive federal privacy protections,” said Ronald Weich, an ACLU Legislative Consultant. “But there are so many loopholes to the Administration’s overall rule that medical records are private that the exceptions threaten to become the rule.”

While the proposed regulations do a good job of shielding medical information from disclosure for commercial reasons, the ACLU said that they provide a series of exceptions for government access to data, including for law enforcement agencies and public health agencies.

“For many patients,” the ACLU said, “the fear of government access to private medical information is as chilling as the fear of commercial access. In fact, many Americans regard the government as more of a threat to liberty than the private sector.”

The ACLU took particularly harsh aim at the Administration’s plans to allow law enforcement agencies virtually unlimited access to medical records. This loophole is so large, the ACLU said, that it “permits computerized medical records to become a vast centralized police database.”

“Medical records of ordinary law-abiding Americans must not be treated like mug shots, fingerprints or other current databases compiled from convicted criminals,” the ACLU said.

The ACLU’s other primary concerns with the regulations include the broad privacy exceptions for medical information collected by the government itself and what the ACLU called a significant omission to the Administration’s proposal: there is no requirement that a doctor obtain a patient’s authorization before using the patient’s medical records for treatment, payment or health care operations.

“The ACLU believes that patients own their medical records,” the ACLU said. “It follows that those records cannot be used for any purpose without the patient’s consent.”

The ACLU’s formal comments came on the last day of the comments period. In addition to filing its own suggested changes, the ACLU said that more than 11,000 people had visited its special medical records web site, filing approximately 10,000 comments with the Administration.

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