Molly Ivins

Right To No (Privacy)

Don’t you just love it when they put out the “For Sale” signs at the Capitol and the White House? Just before new federal rules to protect the privacy of medical records are due to go into effect, the health care industry is lobbying the Bush administration to delay, weaken, or kill the regulations. Insurance companies, HMOs, and employers all claim that the new regs will impose “costly burdens;” that means they will affect profits.

Congress, which asked the Department of Health and Human Services to draw up the regs in the first place, is threatening to get back into it because, really, the only people who want privacy are the people. And what do we matter?

These are the first comprehensive federal standards for medical records, and they were considered a rare victory for consumers. Except now the industry is out to gut them.

The new standards would require that health care providers obtain written consent from patients for the use or disclosure of information in their medical records. Quite a concept: You should have full say over who gets to see information about everything from your hernia to your face lift to the time you had that embarrassing medical problem.

Now let’s see how much your privacy is worth to this administration compared to the combined contributions of those lobbying to shelve or at least weaken the new rules.

An added festive note in the same old story is that both parties are going flat-out to collect soft money unusually early in the election cycle because they’re afraid that Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold might actually succeed in outlawing it.

This strikes such terror in the hearts of party money people that they are out fund-raising frantically against the evil day. And here’s a nice, big interest group that wants something now.

The new privacy regs would:

–Allow all Americans to review and copy their medical records, and change them if they find errors.

–Require health care providers to state their privacy policies in writing. Patients will also have to consent to any disclosure of information related to treatment, payment, and health care operations.

–Allow patients to request that their health care information not be disclosed. Doctors may choose to override the request if they have compelling reasons.

–Prevent employers from receiving medical information that could be used in employment decisions.

–Require law enforcement to follow legal processes to access patient information.

U.S. News & World Report suggested one consequence of the current system, under which medical information is sold to telemarketers so they can make profits off your medical problems: You get a call from a telemarketer in the middle of dinner. It’s a pitch for the latest morning sickness medication for pregnant women–but the call is for your 16-year-old daughter.

Meanwhile, how nice it is to see the new social tone in Washington. The American Enterprise Institute held a big do honoring Justice Clarence Thomas with an award given to those who improve government policy and social welfare.

No comment is needed.

Thomas repeatedly told the crowd he has been “subjected to intimidation” because of his conservative views: “Today, no one can honestly be surprised by the venomous attacks unleashed on anyone who disagrees with conventional views.”

As a lifelong Texas liberal, I’d have to say he’s exactly right, though Texas liberals try to be a little merrier about it. We find that it helps.

My favorite new group is the populist billionaires: Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Bill Gates’s daddy have all come out against repeal of the estate tax, joined by several Rockefellers and all manner of immensely rich white people. What a great country.

Buffett sensibly points out, “Without an estate tax, you in effect will have an aristocracy of wealth, which means you pass down the ability to command the resources of the nation based on heredity rather than merit.”

Buffett said it would “be a terrible mistake, the equivalent of choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the Gold Medal winners in the 2000 Olympics.”

These are my kind of billionaires! Think we should invite ’em over for burgers? Do they like Pearl beer and white-trash dip?

Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her book with Louis Dubose (Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush) is out in paperback. You may write to her at [email protected]

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Published at 12:00 am CST