Each time a patient sees a doctor, is admitted to a hospital, goes to a pharmacist or sends a claim to a health plan, a record is made of their confidential health information. In the past, family doctors and other health care providers protected the confidentiality of those records by sealing them away in file cabinets and refusing to reveal them to anyone else. Today, the use and disclosure of this information is protected by a patchwork of state laws, leaving gaps in the protection of patients' privacy and confidentiality.
Congress recognized the need for national patient record privacy standards in 1996 when they enacted the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). The law included provisions designed to save money for health care businesses by encouraging electronic transactions, but it also required new safeguards to protect the security and confidentiality of that information. The law gave Congress until August 21, 1999, to pass comprehensive health privacy legislation. When Congress did not enact such legislation after three years, the law required the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to craft such protections by regulation.
In November 1999, HHS published proposed regulations to guarantee patients new rights and protections against the misuse or disclosure of their health records. During an extended comment period, HHS received more than 52,000 communications from the public. In December 2000, HHS issued a final rule that made significant changes in order to address issues raised by the comments. To ensure that the provisions of the final rule would protect patients' privacy without creating unanticipated consequences that might harm patients' access to care or quality of care, HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson opened the final rule for comment for 30 days. After that comment period, President Bush and Secretary Thompson decided to allow the rule to take effect on April 14, 2001, as scheduled, and make appropriate changes in the next year to clarify the requirements and correct potential problems that could threaten access to or quality of care.