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Md. groups' deal to extend patient privacy protection But opponents say plan only benefits doctors


Seeking to avoid a legislative battle, the state's health data collectors and the state medical society have agreed to additional privacy protections in the state's database.

But some privacy advocates are unhappy over the agreement, saying it helps doctors more than patients and takes the medical society -- with its lobbying power -- out of the coalition pushing for more regulations to guarantee confidentiality.

At issue is the information being collected by the Health Care Access and Cost Commission (HCACC), which is trying to find out who gets care in Maryland and how much it costs. Beginning next year, insurance companies are required to give HCACC information on each time a patient receives medical care, such as visiting a doctor's office. HCACC has been collecting the data the past few years on a voluntary basis.

A coalition of psychiatrists and civil libertarians -- supported by the medical society -- tried to get legislation saying the state could only collect such information if the patient consented. The advocates plan to seek such a law again this year.

In a move backed by the doctors, HCACC agreed to have its data contractor code doctor names, making it more difficult to trace information on a patient through the name of the doctor, and not to collect data on patients who pay for their own care.

Dr. Alex Azar, president of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, the state medical society, said that now, "Our position is: we are comfortable with the compromise. What we've done goes a long way in assuring patient confidentiality."

Azar is also a member of HCACC. "My role on the commission on this issue," he said, "was as a facilitator -- to try to get the two parties together and talking."

Mimi Azrael, who has pushed for privacy representing the American Civil Liberties Union, the Women's Law Center of Maryland and the Family Law Center, said yesterday the new HCACC actions would have "minimal impact for patients" but would "protect the privacy and commercial interest of the physicians."

Not collecting data on patients who pay out-of-pocket, she said, would mean "Patients with the financial means can buy their privacy." In a letter to the medical society's board of directors, she said the compromise would "do more harm than good," because the doctor group "would be obligated to abandon its support for additional modifications to data compilation," including a patient-consent law.

Pub Date: 12/14/96

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