Technically, the deadline has passed for filing a formal objection to Bill Clinton's proposed rule that President Bush adopted word for word, all 1,500 pages of it.
But, as a practical matter, a chance still remains for killing or substantially revising the new "privacy" rule that puts the federal government in charge of how your medical files are handled and who gets to see them.
Here's how that works:
On a direct order April 9 by President Bush, the HHS department put the Clinton rule into force on April 14. It now has the full effect of federal law.
The official window of opportunity for filing comments with the Department of Health and Human Services, either approving or opposing the rule, closed March 30.
That means HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson – who wanted to make revisions, but was overruled by the president – legally does not have to pay one whit of attention to anything anyone has to say now about the "privacy" rule.
On April 12, Thompson announced he was going to turn his attention to "issuing guidelines on how this rule should be implemented."
That gives him a rather wide range of opportunities for undoing the features of the rule that critics contend make it, in effect, a gigantic "anti-privacy" directive.
For those concerned primarily with the rule's Big Brother effects upon individual patients, that would seem to hold little hope.
The Bush-Cheney administration gives every indication it is interested only in making the rule somewhat less onerous on doctors, dentists, hospitals, pharmacists, nursing homes, health plans and other health providers.
It has turned its back on the anti-privacy implications for patients receiving health care from those providers.
In his April 12 announcement about guidelines, Thompson made that point clear.
So did the Senate's leading health authority, Bill Frist, R-Tenn., chairman of the Public Health Subcommittee of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, who is also a surgeon.
Once regarded as a strong advocate of privacy rights for patients, Frist – also on April 12 – threw his support behind the president's adoption of the rule. He, too, focused his concerns on easing things for the health industry.
But the "privacy" rule is a creature of politicians, and it has its being in a political world. There is no reason to believe that politicians, such as Thompson or Frist or even Bush, will be totally oblivious to complaints registered with them.
The greatest hope for privacy advocates may well lie on Capitol Hill. If it chooses, Congress could trash-can the rule or dramatically revise its nature.
Privacy advocates have had an ardent ally in Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, who on March 5 sent Thompson an early warning that if he let the rule go through as Clinton left it he could expect real trouble on the Hill.
Urging the Bush-Cheney administration "to look before we leap," Armey wrote that "the stated purpose of the ["privacy" rule] was to improve the privacy of medical records."
But, Armey continued, "What has not been widely reported are the rule's new mandates requiring doctors, hospitals and other health-care providers to share patients' personal medical records with the federal government, sometimes without notice of advanced warning. . . .
"Far from protecting privacy, the proposed regulation actually provides the federal government with more access to people's personal medical records.
"A 'trust me, I'm from the government' approach just won't wash."
Armey is the House of Representatives majority leader, which puts him in position to lead the opposition to the "privacy" rule.
Another advocate of privacy has been Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which, like Frist's subcommittee, is a critical gatekeeper of legislation affecting privacy.
But members of Congress do not always remain fixed in position over time. Armey's letter was written more than a month before his party's president did just exactly what Armey was inveighing against. The majority leader now has to be under White House pressure not to buck the president on this one.
In the real world of politics on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are evenly divided with Democrats in the Senate and hold only a slim margin in the House, the extent to which voters back home express themselves could now become the decisive factor in what happens to the "privacy" rule.
Many NewsMax.com readers have taken advantage of a
Readers may also write, phone or, in some instances, e-mail or fax their own individualized messages to:
or Chairman Bill Thomas
Key congressional subcommittees and members:
Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, R-Conn., Chairman
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Chairman
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