With time winding down before an August deadline, Congress has yet to take serious action on legislation that would set federal standards to protect the confidentiality of patient records.
At least two major bills dealing solely with privacy have been introduced in this session of Congress, and a third is expected to be introduced soon. In addition, many of the "patient protection" bills being debated in Congress contain privacy protections.
But three months after President Clinton challenged Congress to pass federal privacy standards, lawmakers have made little progress toward meeting the Aug. 21 deadline.
If Congress misses the deadline for passage of legislation governing the extent to which providers, plans, practitioners and employers can share confidential patient information, HHS will have the authority to set standards by regulation. Congress gave HHS that authority under a 1996 health insurance reform law.
One of the confidentiality bills was introduced by Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, along with Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.). Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is sponsoring legislation with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), senior Democrat on Jeffords' committee.
Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who has sponsored privacy legislation for several years, is expected to introduce another bill later this month. He has circulated draft copies of his measure.
Jeffords' committee has jurisdiction over the legislation in the Senate. Because of the August deadline, Jeffords wants the committee to pass a bill by Memorial Day, said spokesman Joseph Karpinski.
The bills differ on such key issues as pre-emption of state laws that are more restrictive regarding the release of private health data. Bennett's draft bill pre-empts most state laws, while Jeffords' bill allows state laws to remain in effect. Leahy's measure allows states to pass stricter laws.
Another key difference is patients' control of private healthcare information once patients have authorized plans and providers to disclose it.
Leahy's bill restricts access to patients' records and also requires providers to confirm authorization before seeing patients.
Ronald Weich, a legislative consultant for the American Civil Liberties Union, which endorsed the Leahy-Kennedy bill, said he believes draft HHS regulations released in 1997 will prod Congress to act.
"On both sides, there's dissatisfaction with the HHS regulation," Weich said.
He said the ACLU asked its members to discuss the issue when federal lawmakers held town meetings during a recess that ended this week.