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A measure currently under consideration in the House could weaken medical privacy by granting the federal government authority to preempt state laws, according to critics of the bill.

The Institute for Health Freedom says the “Health Information Technology Promotion Act of 2005,” or H.R. 4157, could damage state medical confidentiality provisions by granting the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary legal authority to “preempt state laws ensuring privacy rights” and establish a federal standard that does not guarantee the right to “give or withhold one’s consent before one’s personal health information is shared with others.”

“Thus,” the institute concludes, “if citizens cannot decide who can see their personal health information, they have no true privacy rights.”

Also, the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, a non-partisan organization of doctors from all specialties, has concerns the measure will damage state medical privacy provisions.

“We call for restraint in passing a law that would fast track the creation of a national health information system,” said Jane Orient, M.D., head of AAPS, in a letter to lawmakers.

“The only parties who will benefit by forcing technology on medicine by top-down central planning that actually risks an end to the advancement in information technology will be the government, certain third party payers, lawyers and information technology companies,” she said. “Patients will definitely not benefit from this type of program because they do not control who has access to their sensitive identifiable medical records in any meaningful way.”

According to a congressional summary, the measure amends the Social Security Act “to encourage the dissemination, security, confidentiality, and usefulness of health information technology.”

Introduced last October by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., the bill has 41 co-sponsors.

“Information technology, e-prescribing and electronic medical records have the ability to improve health care quality, reduce errors and save lives,” Johnson said, introducing her legislation.

“America’s health care system has lagged behind other sectors in maximizing its use of cutting-edge information systems, but now we are moving full speed ahead. This legislation will make sure the national health IT coordinator’s post is a permanent one, and it will overcome some of the key obstacles that have slowed our progress toward adoption of a national, interoperable electronic system.”

Johnson said her legislation would promote “common sense cooperation” between physicians and health care facilities, protect privacy by “creating uniform information security standards,” and update “diagnosis coding systems for the digital age,” or the medical shorthand used in health records and insurance claim processing.

But AAPS says while Johnson’s bill contains language which appears to preserve privacy, “members of Congress and their staff, who have not read the HIPAA federal medical privacy rule in its entirety and haven’t been tracking the issue for years, may not realize that H.R. 4157 could actually strip citizens of their state health-privacy rights/freedom to consent.”

The AAPS’s Orient said the “so-called HIPAA Privacy Rule, which is in fact a disclosure rule, does not provide any meaningful privacy protections such as those enshrined in Constitutional law and medical ethics. Therefore a national health information system would effectively eliminate any and all patient consent to the release of their records by placing the records online. Patients would have virtually no control over who can sneak-a-peak at their very private and sensitive medical records.”

“The bottom line is that giving the federal government the power to decide who can see individuals’ personal health information is not true health privacy,” said AAPS. “Rather, it’s actually an infringement on individuals’ privacy and liberty,”

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