Sometimes it seems as if Gen. George McClellan is leading the healthcare industry.
McClellan, as you may recall from your American history classes, was the Union Army commander who repeatedly balked at President Lincoln's directives to attack the Confederate forces. The general almost invariably pulled back from battle, preferring to parade his troops and conduct endless drills. The Civil War might have ended sooner and with less bloodshed if McClellan had struck rebel forces whose size or strength he often overestimated.
A vocal segment of the healthcare industry is behaving in a McClellanesque fashion toward the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. The American Hospital Association and other industry groups have entreated HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and members of Congress to spare them from HIPAA's allegedly onerous privacy and informed consent regulations. To hear these groups tell it, the nation's entire medical treatment system will grind to a halt if these regulations are implemented. Delay, delay, they implore the government.
Setting aside for a moment the ethical arguments in favor of patient privacy and informed consent, there are sound practical reasons for going ahead with HIPAA. In an era of rising consumerism in healthcare, providers ought to demonstrate that they are guarding privacy. We know, for instance, that some people are reluctant to undergo medical treatment because they fear a loss of privacy. And then, of course, there are the legal pitfalls of ignoring these concerns.
Critics also claim that complying with HIPAA's standardization requirements will bankrupt the industry and create electronic logjams. Some of this sounds like suggestions planted by the consulting, legal and information technology crowd, which has to find new ways to separate providers from their money now that Y2K has passed. But as reporter Jeff Tieman noted in our March 26 cover story (p. 36), HIPAA's rules could benefit healthcare in the same way standardization has helped banking and other businesses.
The healthcare industry has had five years to ponder a strategy for HIPAA-legislation, by the way, that the industry initially wanted. Even with an April implementation of the privacy rules, providers would have two more years to fully comply. Rather than waste ammunition with dilatory tactics, the industry would be better served by attacking HIPAA's target problems head-on and finding ways to make the system work.