Patient Advocacy Groups Sue the U.S. Government to Preserve Medical Privacy


Doctors and Patients Unite to Callenge New Regulations That Violate the Constitutional Rights of All Americans

PHILADELPHIA (Thursday, April 10, 2003) - A broad coalition of patients and health care practitioners today filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court to invalidate provisions of federal guidelines that will eliminate the long-held right to privacy of personal health information.

The legal challenge will be part of a wide-scale campaign by nearly a dozen organizations to challenge the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, otherwise known as HIPAA, which mandates the way medical records will be handled by doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and other health care providers.

While officials of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claim the regulations will increase security of medical records, the lawsuit filed by the advocacy groups contends that HIPAA's little-known provisions actually grant unprecedented, unconstitutional access to files without the consent of patients. The federal rule, which has left medical staffs scrambling to insure patient privacy before next week's final deadline, allows insurance companies, employers, law enforcement officers and even bankers to review a patient's cradle-to-grave medical history. It is in fact a "health information disclosure rule," says Jim Turner, president of Citizens for Health, one of the consumer groups filing today's suit.

"We agree with the federal government's initial findings in this area that 'privacy is a fundamental right' of all Americans," says Mr. Turner. But, he adds, the federal government abandoned this principle when quietly reversing its position in August and authorizing thousands of corporations and their "business associates" to use and disclose personal health information without regard to the individuals' wishes.

Dr. Deborah Peel, an Austin, Texas, psychiatrist who has testified before Congress on issues of medical privacy and has sponsored a fundraiser and established a Texas website to help finance today's lawsuit, agreed that "the federal government was right in initially finding that medical privacy is essential for quality health care." In fact, numerous surveys show that citizens avoid seeking needed health care and refuse to confide in their physicians if they fear confidentiality will be breeched.

The loss of medical privacy also eliminates the equal opportunity of each American to be judged on his or her own merit, says Dr. Peel, who also is a member of one plaintiffs organization filing suit today. "Ronald Reagan would never have had the opportunity to be elected president if his genetic predisposition for Alzheimer's Disease had been made public," she says.

Dr. Newell Fischer, president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, another plaintiff in the suit, lamented the loss of privacy. "It is regrettable that we and other citizens must resort to courts to preserve rights that the reason and experience of the country demonstrate are necessary for quality health care." He noted that the United States Supreme Court has found that the privacy of therapist-patient communications are essential for effective psychotherapy. Doctors who practice other specialties have raised similar concerns, particularly on behalf of patients who are HIV-positive or who may have had abortions, both of which can lead to discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere.

The suit was filed in Philadelphia, according to Jim Pyles, attorney for the plaintiffs, because "The fundamental rights at stake in this suit were initially adopted here."


Ana Micka
Citizens for Health
(202) 483-4344
[email protected]

Jim Pyles
(202) 466-6550
[email protected]


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