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Medical Privacy Bill Postponed

June 15, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Senate committee on Tuesday postponed for a third time action on legislation protecting the privacy of medical records, as members searched for bipartisan compromise.

Sen. James Jeffords, who chairs the Health, Education, Pension and Labor Committee, is trying hard to avoid the kind of partisan fighting that surrounded debate over HMOs and patient rights.

He added that a bipartisan vote on privacy was ``essential″ to getting the bill to the Senate floor and getting it passed.

``We’re very, very close″ to consensus, Jeffords, R-Vt., said. ``I want very much to come out in a bipartisan manner.″

While there is a broad agreement on the overall privacy issue, major disagreements remain over the details. A committee vote had already been postponed twice before. On Tuesday, action was postponed until Wednesday after interested parties had already gathered in the committee room.

As in the HMO debate, the right of patients to sue is at the center of the issue. In the privacy case, the question is how easy it will be for patients to sue those who improperly disclose personal health information. Also, Democrats and Republicans were divided over the rights of children to keep their medical records secret _ even from their parents.

Legislation written by Jeffords sets out to establish the first federal right to privacy regarding medical records. While many states have privacy laws, no federal law prohibits the free distribution of someone’s medical records.

The Senate is working under an August deadline. If Congress does not act by then, a 1996 law requires the Clinton administration to write its own regulations.

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