New Medical Privacy Rules

By George Grow

This is the VOA Special English SCIENCE REPORT.

President Clinton has announced new rules to protect the rights of patients. The rules are designed to give Americans more control over their medical records. The measures limit what information doctors, health insurance companies and hospitals can release without a patient's approval.

This is the first time the federal government has established guarantees for the privacy of medical records. The medical privacy rules will take full effect within two years.

The rules are the product of years of debate among the administration, Congress, the health care industry and other groups. The last Congress failed to deal with the issue. So Mr. Clinton decided to use his powers as President to approve the rules.

The measures protect Americans who receive treatment for medical or mental problems. In general, patients will have to give written permission for their medical records to be released to anyone other than their doctors or hospitals. Health care providers will be required to inform patients about how their medical information is being used. Patients will have the right to see their health records and to request corrections.

Anyone violating the rules would be guilty of a crime. They could be punished with jail terms of up to ten years.

President Clinton said the increasing use of computers has raised important questions about the protection of the right to privacy. The President said nothing is more private than a person's health or medical records. He said the government must protect such records if it is to make freedom fully meaningful in the Information Age.

The rules could have a major effect on the American health care industry. For example, health insurance companies are now permitted to give private health information to financial lending companies. The companies then can deny financial assistance to people. They also can use the information for market research or other purposes.

Representatives of the health care industry have criticized the rules. They say the rules will greatly add to the cost of treatment. And they say the measures will restrict the flow of medical information to research scientists.

The new Congress or the administration of President-elect George W. Bush could change the rules. However, it would be difficult to do so.

This VOA Special English SCIENCE REPORT was written by George Grow.

Voice of America Special English