Law enforcement officials' access to medical records has become a topic of debate on Capitol Hill.
The U.S. Justice Department argues that law enforcement officials must be free to access records to conduct fraud investigations, and it doesn't want a change in current law.
At a committee hearing last week, however, Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) said officials should have to obtain subpoenas or warrants to be given records. He plans to reintroduce a comprehensive medical-records privacy bill next year.
A Justice Department official said that would hinder fraud investigations. "We cannot run a healthcare fraud investigation without access to medical records," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
HHS Secretary Donna Shalala recently outlined her own plan to safeguard medical records, including strict controls over the disclosure of confidential information (Sept. 15, p. 16). But Shalala is not calling for changes in law enforcement officials' access.
Currently medical records are protected largely through state regulations, and provider groups say the resulting patchwork is confusing and conflicting.
"We are surprised and troubled that (Shalala's) recommendations would not extend consistent federal privacy restrictions to law enforcement agencies," said Spencer Foreman, M.D., president of New York's Montefiore Medical Center, who testified on behalf of the American Hospital Association at last week's hearing.
Last month a presidential advisory commission exempted healthcare fraud investigations when it proposed that law enforcement officials be given access to medical records only in extreme cases unless they have written authorization. The group is the President's Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry, which is charged with drafting a "patients' bill of rights."