Senate aides have reopened talks on drafting compromise legislation to help keep medical records private, despite missing a deadline for passing such a law.
Under the provisions of a 1996 health insurance reform law, Congress had until Aug. 21 to pass legislation regulating the use of personal medical information by providers, insurers and employers. If that deadline passed, the law gave HHS the authority to draft regulations governing privacy of medical records transmitted electronically.
HHS is working on those regulations, and it has until Feb. 21 to publish them. A proposed rule is expected this fall. But HHS said it will defer to Congress if it passes legislation.
"We're still going to encourage Congress, when they return from recess, to pass comprehensive legislation," said HHS spokeswoman Lorrie McHugh.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee had nearly come to agreement on a compromise bill in June, but it canceled two meetings to work on and pass the bill when several thorny issues arose (June 21, p. 16; May 31, p. 6).
Chief among those is whether to allow lawsuits by patients whose confidential medical data has been disclosed. Providers, insurers and employers are fighting that provision.
The original legislation, drafted by Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), chairman of the health committee, allowed patients to sue for compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to civil and criminal sanctions.
Those issues made committee members uncomfortable with sending a bill to the full Senate, a Democratic aide said.
"Had we resolved two or three issues, we would have had the comfort level to report a bill and fix some of the other issues on the floor," the aide said. "If we knocked off two or three issues, we could move it forward (today)."
In the meantime, the Senate's work was delayed by its debate on managed-care legislation, over which the health committee also has jurisdiction.
House committees, meanwhile, have more work to do. But some members on the key House Commerce health subcommittee have asked HHS to delay releasing the proposed regulations while they draft legislation.
"We are writing to request that you refrain from proposing any new confidentiality regulations as we intend to pursue and to pass comprehensive legislation addressing patient confidentiality this fall," the representatives wrote in the letter to HHS Secretary Donna Shalala.
The letter was signed by Reps. James Greenwood (R-Pa.), Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.)., members of the House Commerce health subcommittee, along with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).