Thursday, October 18, 2007

A bipartisan mix of lawmakers and private companies say Congress should pass legislation protecting the medical records of patients from potential identity theft and abuse.

The coalition includes liberal lawmakers, such as Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat; the conservative Family Research Council; and Microsoft Corp.

“Medical information is probably the most sensitive and personal information that we have about ourselves. Without strong privacy safeguards, a health [information-technology] database will become an open invitation for identity thieves, fraudsters, extortionists or marketers looking to cash in on our medical histories,” Mr. Markey said, adding that “tough privacy safeguards” are necessary to reap the benefits of integrated health databases.

The electronic medical record legislation working its way through Congress would allow data-mining companies and “4 million other individuals and entities” to secretly access millions of private medical records, creating a potential boon for misuse and identity theft, they say.

“If you think we’ve got a problem with identity theft now, just wait,” said Dr. Deborah Peel, who chairs the Patient Privacy Rights coalition, a group asking Congress to pass laws ensuring individual privacy protections for medical records.

Supporters of the House and Senate legislation say the data collection has “secondary uses,” allowing health care professionals to cross-check patient records and to expedite treatment.

Dr. Peel says that data-mining companies that collect private medical information sell that data to the highest bidder.

Her coalition’s concern is that private medical information could then be used to discriminate against people who have received mental-health treatment or who suffer from chronic illnesses and may be discriminated against by potential employers or insurance providers.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, won accolades last year for teaming with Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, on legislation that aimed to make medical information available electronically.

The House and Senate are considering similar legislation this year.

Dr. Peel says that she supports such innovative measures but that Congress must simultaneously provide the same types of privacy protections that are given to members of the military.

“The Senate has been abysmal,” she said, adding that both conservatives and liberals in the House have been far more receptive to her group’s efforts.

She said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, “has been a champion of privacy rights for decades but doesn’t have the power to force the Senate” to change its stance.

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