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Congress packed it in for the summer last week without passing patient confidentiality legislation required by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Technically, that hands the task of drafting regulations over to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). But the more likely next step is that Congress will extend its own deadline when it returns after Labor Day.
"Congress is showing no sign of throwing in the towel on this," says Roy Bussewitz of the Alexandria, VA-based National Association of Chain Drug Stores. "This issue is still front and center on their agenda."
Just two weeks ago, HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation Margaret Hamburg told the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee that offenders should be subject to criminal felony penalties if they knowingly obtain or use health care information in violation of the standards. "The penalties mandated in privacy legislation should be higher when violations are for monetary gain, similar to those Congress mandated in the administrative simplification provisions of HIPAA," she said. "When there is a demonstrated pattern or practice of unauthorized disclosure, those committing it should be subject to civil monetary penalties."
Meanwhile, HCFA Deputy Director Mike Hash tried to split the difference on the contentious area of pre-emption. "Our recommendations call for national standards," he said. "But, we do not recommend outright or overall federal preemption of existing state laws that are more protective of health information."