March 26, 2001
The Fight for Medical Privacy Continues in Washington
Medical privacy advocates enjoyed a victory last week when the Supreme Court ruled that a government hospital in South Carolina violated the constitutional rights of pregnant women by testing them for drugs without their consent. The hospital ostensibly began the testing program because of concerns about increasing cocaine use by pregnant patients, but if the hospital was concerned only with patient and fetus health, why were test results turned over to law enforcement? Several women were arrested and put in jail because of the tests, with their newborns presumably taken away to become wards of the state. Not surprisingly, the rationale for this terrible violation of doctor-patient confidentiality was the drug war. The real tragedy of this case is that it may cause pregnant women to conceal illegal drug use from their doctors out of fear of arrest. How many babies will be misdiagnosed or go untreated because their mothers no longer have any medical privacy?
Fortunately, the Supreme Court upheld the Fourth amendment in ruling against the hospital. The drug war has been used for too long as an excuse for unconstitutional actions by government. The Fourth and Fifth amendment prohibitions against unreasonable searches and compelled testimony routinely are ignored by legislators, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and especially federal agencies. As a result, all Americans have suffered the loss of liberties guaranteed to them in the Bill of Rights.
As a physician, I cannot imagine providing my patients' medical records to police as evidence for a criminal prosecution. Like most doctors, I adhere to a strict policy of maintaining patient confidentiality. Medical privacy has existed for centuries between doctors and patients, without government interference. However, the drug war has provided the ever-growing federal government with new justifications to invade your once-private medical history.
Unfortunately, the drug war is not the only threat to your medical privacy. Medical privacy also is under assault by Washington health bureaucrats. The federal government wants greater access to your private medical records than ever before. On April 14, the department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is scheduled to implement invasive new medical rules written during the Clinton administration. The proposed rules require doctors and other health care providers to give patient records to the federal government for very broadly defined purposes and without patient consent. The rules grant law enforcement access to patient records without a search warrant. Patients will have only limited knowledge of who sees their records, and individuals will not be able to sue health care providers or the government for breaches of privacy. Ultimately, your medical history will be readily available to any government agency that wishes to create a national medical database.
The dangers posed by these regulations are obvious. Patients will hesitate to disclose information to their doctors if they fear such information will end up in a federal database. Doctors will be unable to provide effective care when patients conceal sensitive medical problems, such as drug and alcohol addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, and psychiatric problems. The HHS rules threaten to turn doctors into government agents, who are required to divulge information which ultimately could be used against their patients by federal agencies, law enforcement, and health insurers.
I recently introduced legislation to halt implementation of the new HHS rules. The federal government has no business knowing your private medical history. Don't believe the bureaucrats who tell us they have innocent reasons for wanting our medical records. The truth is that the federal government wants to eliminate your medical privacy, just as it has eliminated so many of your liberties.