HHS proposal would relax medical privacy rules
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration has proposed changing the rules that protect the privacy of a patient's medical records.
The plan would loosen a provision that requires doctors, hospitals and other providers to get written consent for patients before using or releasing medical information for treatment.
The proposed changes were described in a written statement Thursday from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who said the move would "allow us to deliver strong protections for personal medical information while improving access to care."
The statement said the requirement for prior consent on privacy practices has caused "serious unintended consequences," such as requiring patients to visit a pharmacy to sign a consent form before a prescription could be filled. Also, doctors could refuse to treat patients who refused to sign their privacy consent form.
"To fix these problems, the proposal would promote access to care by removing the consent requirements for treatment, payment and health care operations that would interfere with efficient delivery of health care, while strengthening requirements for providers to notify patients about their privacy rights and practices.
"Patients would be asked to acknowledge the privacy notice, but doctors and other providers could treat them if they did not," according to the HHS.
The present rules date back to privacy standards developed during the Clinton administration and were to be fully implemented by April 2004.
Also under the new proposal, medical providers and the benefits industry would be able to use a common and simplified consent form, and agree among themselves to comply with the privacy provisions Thompson has proposed.
The changes would also relax rules covering discussions about a patient's care among doctors and other professionals, such as insurance officials. The HHS statement says current rules create the possibility of a violation for such conversations without the patient's prior consent.
The plan would preserve a standard limiting such disclosure to the "minimum necessary." Also, it would assure proper access to parents for their children's records. The statement says the present rules "may have unintentionally limited" a parent's access to a child's medical records.
The proposal prohibits the use of patient records for marketing by pharmacies, drug companies, health plans and others without a patient's explicit authorization.
"These are common-sense revisions that eliminate serious obstacles to patients getting needed care and services quickly while continuing to protect patients' privacy. For example, sick patients will not be forced to visit the pharmacy themselves to pick up prescriptions -- and could send a family member or friend instead. Doctors will be able to consult with nurses and others involved in a patient's care to ensure that they get the best care," Thompson said.
The rulemaking process involves a 30-day public comment period after the detailed proposal is published in the Federal Register, set for March 27.
Based on comments, HHS would then issue a final rule.
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