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October 29, 1999: Protecting the Privacy of Medical Records

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"Every American has a right to know that his or her medical records are protected at all times from falling into the wrong hands. These standards represent an unprecedented step toward putting Americans back in control of their own medical records."

President Bill Clinton
Friday, October 29, 1999

Today, at the White House, President Clinton unveiled a landmark set of privacy protections for medical information stored or transmitted electronically These protections, which the President is proposing because of Congress's failure to act, give consumers more control over their health information; set limits on the use and release of health records and ensure their security; establish accountability for inappropriate use and release; and balance public responsibility with privacy protections. The President noted that, because his regulatory authority is limited, comprehensive federal legislation is urgently needed, and called on Congress to enact broader privacy protections without further delay.

Unveiling Safeguards for Sensitive Health Information. The new regulation being unveiled today:

  • Prevents doctors, hospitals, health plans, and other covered entities from releasing identifiable health information without a patient's written consent for purposes unrelated to treatment, payment, or priorities like public health. Currently, such data is often released to marketing firms, financial institutions, and employers without knowledge or consent, then used in direct marketing campaigns, loan eligibility decisions, and for other purposes.

  • Requires health plans and providers to publish a notice to patients about how their information is being used and to whom it is being disclosed;

  • Gives patients access to their own health file and the right to request amendments or make corrections;

  • Sets limits on medical record use and ensures the release of the minimum amount of information necessary. Currently, health care providers and plans often release a patient's entire health record even if the requestor needs only particular information;

  • Requires health plans and providers to establish internal procedures to protect the privacy of health records;

  • Balances public responsibility with privacy protections by requiring that information be disclosed only for research conducted responsibly; and

  • Creates new criminal and civil penalties for improper use or disclosure of information.

Urging Congress to Enact Comprehensive Legislation. These important new protections are a critical first step a step the President is taking because Congress has failed to act in the three-year timeframe it gave itself in 1996. But the President's administrative authority is limited by statute, and comprehensive federal privacy protections are urgently needed. Today's regulation, for example, does not cover all paper records. Nor does it directly regulate many entities, including employers, other insurers, or public health agencies. Federal legislation is also needed to fortify the penalties and to give citizens the right to hold health plans and providers directly accountable for inappropriate and harmful disclosures of information. President Clinton called on Congress to finish the job and enact the comprehensive protections that the American people want and need.

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