Junkfood Science: Medical privacy updates

December 07, 2006

Medical privacy updates

The Institute for Health Freedom has just released the December issue of Health Freedom Watch. A few highlights:

The Boston Globe reported that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the largest health insurer in the state, plans to collect detailed personal information on enrollees seeking mental health treatment. Plan members will answer 58 personal questions (on paper or through a secure website), including questions about their moods, feelings, and sex lives. [The questionnaire is online.] If enough patients don’t comply, their doctors or therapists could be denied annual increases in reimbursement.

Some psychiatrists and mental health-service organizations have already voiced concern over the policy. "Who in their right mind would fill out such a form?" said Dr. Marc Whaley , a Chatham psychiatrist and president of the Southeastern Massachusetts Psychiatric Society. "It's just an intrusive invasion of privacy."

Bruce Mermelstein , president of Comprehensive Outpatient Services, which serves 2,000 clients at mental health clinics in Newton, Chelmsford, Lowell, and Fitchburg, said patients should be concerned about privacy issues. "We generally don't feel positive about sharing any information with an outside source. That's a legitimate worry," he said....

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that corporate giants Intel, Wal-Mart, British Petroleum and other companies are planning to digitize their workers’ health records and store them in a multimillion-dollar database. The Institute for Health Freedom adds:

The promise of employee ownership will be no guarantee of privacy. Here is why: The privacy rule actually permits over 600,000 doctors, insurers, and others to share individuals’ electronic medical records—without consent—for purposes related to treatment, payment, or health-care operations, a very broad category. About that rule, Journal reporter Theo Francis recently wrote in “Taking Control: Setting the Records Straight”:

*“Over the past three years, millions of Americans visiting doctors’ offices, pharmacies and hospitals have been handed forms and brochures discussing privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Many assume signing somehow protects their privacy. It doesn't.

* “In fact, the disclosure notice essentially details the many ways a doctor can use and disclose medical information—often without a patient’s consent or knowledge.

* “Health plans and medical providers also must track some kinds of disclosures, and give patients a list if asked, including disclosures for public-health purposes, but not routine uses for treatment, payment or health-care operations.”

Thus, even though big companies promise employees they will own their electronic medical records, workers won’t control access to them unless (1) the privacy rule is changed or (2) company contracts guarantee control....

Addendum: Major health insurers have already begun creating national databases of medical records, as Kaiser Daily Reports reported this past August:

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association on Friday announced the creation of Blue Health Intelligence, a database of claims on 79 million enrollees that will provide "a treasure trove of information that employers working with health plans can use to extract greater value for their health care dollars."

Blue Health Intelligence will include all medical procedures and other care from 20 BCBS insurers in 34 states. Information identifying individual patients will be stripped. At first, local BCBS insurers will provide the information to employers and will offer quality reports to doctors and hospitals on the care they provide...

Employers will be able to use the data to analyze how their workers are using health care services, the Pioneer Press reports. BCBS officials said they also have received inquiries from pharmaceutical companies and medical device companies that would like to access the database.

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