Barton says privacy is a priority for health IT legislation

House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders caught in debate over definition of privacy, though they hope to vote on the measure before the recess.

House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders hope to vote on legislation before the August recess that would create a national system of electronic medical records, Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton said today.

Comment on this article in The Forum.He noted members working on changes to the bill, which passed a key subcommittee last month, "are making privacy a priority" even though the measure is chiefly a vehicle to speed the adoption of health information technology.

Barton, who spoke at a privacy conference, said his committee's bill will likely have "the strongest privacy protection of any bill that's gone through the House or Senate in the last five or 10 years."

Similar legislation introduced more than a year ago by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy and ranking member Michael Enzi could move soon, according to Democratic and Republican aides. But a spokeswoman for Kennedy said action is unlikely until a few lingering issues are addressed. Chief among them are concerns by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who could place a hold if the measure is brought to the floor through a process used to expedite passage under unanimous consent. Coburn and other Republicans object in particular to the bill's $137 million authorization level. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., also is said to oppose "hot-lining" the legislation.

Snowe believes privacy protections in the bill should be enforced through fines and data breach notification requirements for those who handle unencrypted electronic health records. Exceptions would apply in certain circumstances and for law enforcement officials. The existing 18-member American Health Information Community, which is chaired by HHS Secretary Leavitt, has one consumer representative, but Snowe wants the board to have three, an aide said. The Bush administration has opposed changes to board allocation, sources said. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy also had privacy concerns but reached a deal with bill sponsors in May. His language would eliminate a loophole in privacy law that allows some healthcare providers to give outpatient information for marketing purposes.

Negotiations within the House Energy and Commerce Committee revolve mainly around protecting patient privacy, but "the problem is determining what privacy is" in a legislative sense, Barton said today. Privacy advocates have offered a definition of privacy that they want written into the bill, which is "technically correct but not legislatively appropriate," he said. Barton said he and Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell have been "going round and round" with Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and ranking member Nathan Deal, R-Ga., about whether to include such a definition. When asked whether he thought broader legislation was a possibility rather than handling the issue incrementally, Barton was not encouraged. "In all sincerity, because of the legislative process and all the stakeholders involved, I don't see that [happening]," he said.