WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?

WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?

Did you know that if Congress fails to pass a medical privacy law by Aug. 21, the Clinton administration will be handed the authority to regulate your medical privacy? This deadline, established by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, puts pressure on Congress to protect the confidentiality of Americans' medical records.

If Congress fails to enact medical privacy legislation by the deadline, the act requires the secretary of health and human services to issue privacy regulations.Currently, hundreds of individuals and organizations have access to your medical records, whether you know it or not. During the course of a hospital stay, the Congressional Research Service reports, as many as 400 people may see at least part of a patient's medical record.

Additionally, medical records are accessed every day by health insurance companies, life insurance companies, self-insured companies, state bureaus of vital statistics, managed care organizations, hospital accrediting organizations and medical researchers.

So far, Congress has done little to protect the medical privacy of Americans. Several bills have been introduced, but none would truly protect medical privacy. In fact, some of the proposals would actually make matters worse.

A bill introduced by Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, would pre-empt existing state laws that provide greater security for medical privacy.

Legislation proposed by Sen. James Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, would force individuals, as a stipulation for purchasing health insurance, to waive their right to privacy.

In addition, government agencies and biomedical researchers would have access to patients' records without first obtaining their consent. Patients could become research subjects without ever knowing their personal health information was being used as part of a study.

What's most disturbing about this proposed legislation is its definition of ''health information.'' That term is defined to encompass patient's medical information in any form or medium, including your individual cellular data.

When researchers are able to access medical information without your consent, they will be able to ascertain your genetic information without your permission as well.

If Congress fails to meet its August deadline, the Clinton administration is ready to move forward with plans to create a unique health-care identifier number for every American. The number would be used to tag and track medical information electronically.

That's no way to ensure medical privacy. Yet it seems unlikely that Congress will pass an alternative bill by August.

Congress has only a few working weeks left in the summer, and there appears to be little consensus regarding the leading medical privacy bill in the Senate.

If Congress can't reach consensus on the existing medical privacy legislation, but doesn't want to punt that authority to the Clinton administration, it should extend the Aug. 21 deadline.

An extension would allow for greater public input and time to thoroughly debate medical privacy legislation. Such legislation would have an enormous impact on both privacy and liberty.