Although medical records privacy legislation has stalled in a Senate committee only six weeks from a deadline for passage, Republicans still are optimistic that Congress will act on the issue this year.
Republicans and Democrats still are at odds over issues, such as whether to allow patients to sue hospitals or insurers that illegally release their records and the degree of access law enforcement officials can have to confidential patient records.
Citing continuing disputes, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last month suspended action on the legislation (June 21, p. 16).
In the meantime, committee members and aides have been distracted from talks on the privacy bill by the Senate debate on managed-care reforms, which the panel also discussed.
Republican and Democratic aides said no talks have occurred since the committee decided to delay action on the privacy bill.
Under the terms of a 1996 health insurance reform law, Congress has until Aug. 21 to pass privacy standards. If not, the law gives HHS the authority to enact privacy standards through regulation.
Because Clinton administration officials have said they would prefer that standards be statutory, Congress still may be able to act after the Aug. 21 deadline, said committee spokesman Joseph Karpinski.
Other outstanding concerns include whether health insurance underwriters need to get separate authorizations to see patient records and how much access parents can have to their children's medical records, an issue that has entangled the bill in abortion politics.
Meanwhile, the House has passed a limited measure aimed at protecting medical records held by insurers when banks purchase insurance companies. Included in legislation reforming the financial services sector, the provision was pushed by Rep. Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), a physician.
A spokesman said Ganske was trying to prevent banks from viewing medical records before determining whether they will give loans to sick customers. But opponents said the provision doesn't go far enough.