A Republican Hurdle For Patient Privacy

As a nurse, I am always looking for ways to improve patient care.

Recent innovations in health information technology have shown a great deal of promise in enhancing the quality of care by reducing clerical errors, facilitating communication between hospitals and other health care facilities, and improving the transfer of x-rays and other images. This new technology has the potential to save lives by reducing medical accidents attributed to human error, such as illegible hand-written prescriptions, and save money by reducing paperwork and increasing the speed with which medical records are accessed. Unfortunately, these innovations are also fraught with potential problems, particularly with regards to protecting the privacy of patients as their personal medical records are more easily accessible to a larger number of people.

Just recently we saw the names, birthdates, social security numbers, addresses and disability information of 26.2 million veterans and active duty military stolen from a single laptop belonging to the Veterans Administration. This lapse in judgment compromised the sensitive personal records of millions of veterans and their families, leaving them extremely vulnerable to fraud and identity theft. I fear that if we don't take necessary precautions, the same security breach could affect the rest of the public. We must ensure safeguards are in place to protect sensitive medical information from being accessed by the wrong parties or being used to discriminate against individuals.

Last week in the Health Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce committee we considered a bill on health information technology. I offered an amendment to this bill that would have expanded and improved existing federal medical privacy law. My amendment would have improved privacy protections for patients in several ways. First, it would require health groups to get consent from patients before sharing medical information. Second, it would allow patients to control the sharing of particularly sensitive records -- such as mental health or HIV/AIDS cases. Third it would ensure that patients are notified in the event that their information has been inappropriately accessed and it would provide a means of legal recourse for patients whose medical records are compromised.

Unfortunately my amendment was rejected in the subcommittee on a party line vote of 12 to 10. I am hopeful that when the Health Information Technology bill is considered by the full Energy and Commerce committee later this week, my colleagues will act to protect the sensitive private medical records of our constituents.