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The sparring over the privacy regulations has begun. Many health industry groups are lobbying Congress and the Bush administration to delay their implementation, but they are meeting strong opposition from privacy advocates who wanted the regulations to become policy as scheduled on Feb. 26. The new regulations, which are mandated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, take effect two years afterward.
According to the American Hospital Association (AHA) in Chicago, the medical groups have won part of the battle by default. The AHA is reporting that a paperwork lapse at the end of the Clinton administration has delayed the privacy regulations’ effective date until mid-April. Officials apparently failed to transmit the final regulation to Capitol Hill when it was issued late in December, the AHA says.
This delay gives the medical groups more time to make their case. On Feb. 5, a group of more than 30 health industry organizations signed a letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson asking him to delay implementation of the privacy regulations. The letter lists seven areas of concern that the organizations claim could cause serious disruption of patient care. Thompson has reopened HIPAA privacy regs for a new 30-day comment period.
The AHA and other medical groups also sent representatives to testify before Congress about the privacy regulations. "We believe Congress should closely examine the high costs associated with implementing the privacy regulation and take the necessary steps to ensure that implementation does not put hospitals in financial jeopardy by supplying the necessary funds. While the AHA strongly supports workable federal medical privacy laws, we cannot support yet another unfunded mandate," said John Houston, information services director, data security office and assistant counsel for the UPMC Health System in Pittsburgh. Houston testified Feb. 8 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Privacy groups, though, have encouraged HHS not to delay the privacy regulations’ implementation date. These groups charge that the positions of the medical industry groups are not supported by the text of the regulation. A delay based on these positions, therefore, is "unjustified and unacceptable," says a letter to Thompson from the Institute for Health Care Research and Policy in Washington, DC.
"[HIPAA] clearly anticipates that there might be some difficulties in implementing the administrative simplification provisions [including the privacy regulation] and provides a method for resolving the problems. Delaying the effect date of the entire regulation is not the mechanism provided in HIPAA," the letter states.
Senators seem split over the need for the delay. The AHA has reported, though, that HHS has said it might consider adopting a modification to the final HIPAA Electronic Transactions rule at the urging of the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics and the Insurance Subcommittee of Accredited Standards Committee X12. Therefore, the AHA remains hopeful that the privacy rule could be revisited.