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Medical records privacy

06/06/03 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert is worried about a medical records disclosure notice he recently was asked to sign at his doctor's office.

(Gilbert) If you've been to see your doctor lately, you've probably been asked to sign a medical records privacy notice. And, if like most people you've been in a hurry, you probably haven't taken the time to read the document.

You should. There's some pretty frightening stuff in it.

For example, do you realize that police can come to your doctor's office and demand to see your medical records - without your permission - for "specialized government functions, such as for the protection of the president or high ranking government officials"?

The privacy notices that we're all being asked to sign are a requirement of "HIPAA," and HIPAA - or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act - is a strange and twisted political tale.

I thought "Patriot Act" when I was asked at my doctor's office to sign the notice. I thought that this was another example of the erosion of our individual liberties because of the fear of terrorism.

I was wrong. The HIPAA privacy notice - even the language about the right of the government to look at private records to protect the president and other government officials - pre-dates the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Ironically, the congressional impetus for HIPAA was a desire to protect personal medical records, and to smooth transitions when people have to switch health care plans. In the late 1990s, it was becoming clear that medical records could easily be shared electronically among providers and insurers. There was a fear that records could end up in the wrong hands, or be used for questionable purposes.

But somewhere, on the legislative and regulatory road to protecting our privacy, the government staked out a right to invade our privacy. That scares me. I remember all too well when President Richard Nixon's "plumbers" broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist in 1971. Ellsberg had leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, and the Nixon White House wanted to nail him. The plumbers were looking for any information that could damage Ellsberg's reputation. The country was horrified when the story broke. Today, though, under HIPAA, the plumbers could probably do their dirty work legally.

Now, as we view language that I am certain once would have repulsed us, we think of our current, brave president playing top-gun on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and we reason, "Yup, gotta protect that guy. The government's gotta be able to do what it's gotta do."

We need to take a new fix on the polar star of our civil liberties. We're losing our way because we don't seem to care what direction we're going in. The first thing we can do is attend a workshop on "Civil Liberties and Security in the Post 9/11 America." It's scheduled for June 19 in South Burlington. It's sponsored by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and you can be sure that HIPAA will be discussed. Doctors as well as patients need to learn more about this law.

This is Allen Gilbert.

For more information about the civil liberties conference, call the ACLU of Vermont at 223-6304.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.
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