02.03.09

Protect Health Privacy Provisions In Recovery Package

WASHINGTON (Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009) – Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Tuesday urged Congress to support critical health information privacy protections included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which the Senate is considering this week.  The legislation includes funding for investments and incentives in health information technology. 

The increased use of technology and the Internet can help reduce health care costs and increase Americans’ accessibility to health care services.  Leahy has advocated important, meaningful privacy safeguards to protect Americans’ most private personal information.
“I have long held the view that American innovation can – and should – play a vital role in revitalizing our economy and in improving our Nation’s health care system,” Leahy said in a Senate floor statement.  “The privacy safeguards in the economic recovery package take an important step towards tackling the difficult, but essential task of ensuring meaningful health information privacy for all Americans.” 

Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and on January 27, held a hearing to examine how best to implement privacy protections in electronic health information systems.  The Director of the Vermont Health Care Reform Commission, Dr. James Hester, testified about Vermont’s public-private partnership that is charged with developing Vermont’s statewide electronic health information system.  The Commission was created to oversee the implementation of a 2006 health reform law aimed at ensuring and providing affordable, quality health care to Vermonters.  The state law included an important privacy policy to secure Vermonters’ personal information. 

In past years, Leahy has partnered with other Members of Congress including Senator Edward Kennedy to introduce health privacy legislation, and to include important privacy protections in health care reform proposals. 

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),

Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,

On Consideration Of Health IT Privacy Protections
In The American Recovery And Reinvestment Act Of 2009

February 3, 2009 

This week, the Senate is considering critical legislation to renew our economy and to renew America’s promise of prosperity and security for all of its citizens.  I have long held the view that American innovation can – and should – play a vital role in revitalizing our economy and in improving our Nation’s health care system.  I commend the lead sponsors of this legislation for making sure that the economic recovery package includes an investment in health information technology that also takes meaningful steps to protect the privacy of American consumers. 

The privacy protections for electronic health records in the economic recovery package are essential to a successful national health IT system, and these safeguards should not be weakened.  In America today, if you have a health record, you have a health privacy problem.  The explosion of electronic health records, digital databases, and the Internet is fueling a growing supply of and demand for Americans’ health information.  The ability to easily access this information electronically – often by the click of a mouse, or a few key strokes on a computer – can be very useful in providing more cost-effective health care.  But, the use of advancing technologies to access and share health information can also lead to a loss of personal privacy.   

Without adequate safeguards to protect health privacy, many Americans will simply not seek the medical treatment that they need for fear that their sensitive health information will be disclosed without their consent.  And those who do seek medical treatment assume the risk of data security breaches and other privacy violations.  Likewise, health care providers who perceive the privacy risks associated with health IT systems as inconsistent with their professional obligations will avoid participating in a national health IT system. 

The economic recovery package takes several important steps to avoid these pitfalls and to protect Americans’ health information privacy.  First, the provisions give each individual the right to access his or her own electronic health records and the right to timely notice of data breaches involving their health information.  The economic recovery bill also places critical restrictions on the sale of sensitive health data and requires that the Department of Health and Human Services educates and conducts outreach to American consumers and businesses regarding their privacy rights and obligations.  Lastly, the bill enhances the enforcement tools available to the States, as well as to Federal authorities, to deter lax health information privacy.  These key privacy safeguards must not be weakened as the Senate considers the economic recovery bill.

Of course, more can -- and should -- be done in the weeks and months ahead to further improve health information privacy, such as strengthening the rights of consumers to control their own electronic health records.  In Vermont, we have formed a public-private partnership that is charged with developing Vermont's statewide electronic health information system, including a policy on privacy.  I believe that in order for a national health IT system to succeed, we in Congress should follow Vermont’s good example and work together for the long-term with public and private stakeholders to ensure the privacy and security of electronic health records.   

As the Senate considers the economic recovery package, we face many difficult challenges in our Nation.  The challenge of finding the right balance between privacy and efficiency for a national health IT system is just one; but, it is an important test that we must meet head on.  Without meaningful privacy safeguards, our Nation’s health IT system will fail its citizens.  In his inaugural address, President Obama eloquently noted that in our new era of responsibility “there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”  The privacy safeguards in the economic recovery package take an important step towards tackling the difficult, but essential task of ensuring meaningful health information privacy for all Americans. 

Again, I commend the lead sponsors of the economic recovery bill and President Obama for their commitment to include meaningful health privacy protections in the bill.  I also commend the many stakeholders, including the Center for Democracy & Technology, Consumers Unions, the American Civil Liberties Union and Microsoft, that have advocated tirelessly for meaningful health IT privacy protections in this legislation. I urge all Members to support the health IT privacy protections in the bill, so that our national health care system will have the support and confidence of the American people.

I ask that a copy of a February 1, 2009, editorial from The New York Times in support of funding protections for patients’ privacy, entitled “Your E-Health Records,” be printed in the Record following my full statement. 

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