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Strange Bedfellows on Health Privacy: ACLU & Microsoft

Friday, October 19, 2007 - 15:12
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What do the ACLU, Gun Owners of America, the Free Congress Foundation and Microsoft have in common? A hankering for patient privacy, it seems.

With some 40 other groups, they sent congressmen a letteryesterday urging them to “establish basic privacy protections” for health records, and soon. (Or see the press release.)

They complain that no federal statute establishes a right to health privacy and dismiss the HIPAA privacy regulation as “really a ‘Disclosure Rule’.” Their letter charges that forging “national privacy standards is a job for Congress, not unelected agency appointees.” A similar group — marrying the Christian Coalition and the National Center for Transgender Equality, among others — lobbied last year as well.

For Microsoft, it may be no coincidence that its political activism comes soon after the company unveiled HealthVault, online software and a service that would let patients store what medical information they want in a central place, giving health-care providers ready access (through Microsoft-compatible applications, naturally). Microsoft edged out Google in the online health-records race, as the Health Blog noted earlier this month.

Along the way Microsoft consulted with privacy advocates such as Deborah Peel, an Austin, Texas psychotherapist and founder of Patient Privacy Rights, one of the groups at the center of the lobbying campaign. Microsoft got Peel’s support in part by agreeing to a host of privacy guidelines, including external audits to ensure its privacy protections are what they advertise. (Peel says her group is funded by donations from individuals and honoraria for her speeches.) “We know that consumers are very concerned about the privacy of their private health data,” Peter Neupert, vice-president of Microsoft’s Health Solutions Group, said at the product’s launch in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Few in the health-care business dismiss patient privacy concerns outright. But many argue that there’s a trade-off between privacy and good care. Too many restrictions on what medical providers can see may blunt the advantages of electronic records — and could even hurt patient care. Privacy advocates counter that there’s a big gulf between that scenario and today’s HIPAA rule, which lets thousands of third-party vendors see patient data by signing hard-to-enforce contracts promising not to further divulge it.

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