Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., timed his support to coincide with the new administration's surprise acceptance April 12 of the regulation the former president left behind shortly before his term expired Jan. 20.
Bush had suddenly ordered Tommy Thompson, his secretary of health and human services, to allow the Clinton regulation to go into effect immediately.
This came as a shock to opponents who had been led by the Bush-Cheney administration to believe the 1,500-page complex document would be kept under review past an original April 14 deadline.
Frist has been considered a firm ally of efforts on Capitol Hill to block further erosion of patients' rights to keep their medical records private.
He had approved the hold Bush put on the Clinton order almost immediately after taking office, to give Thompson an opportunity to review it for potential privacy abuses.
But when the secretary announced April 12, on orders from the president issued April 9, that he was implementing the new rule at once, Frist issued this announcement the same day:
"I support the president's decision to move ahead with implementation of the privacy regulations.
"Privacy is a cherished right, and we must make sure consumers have confidence that their sensitive medical information will be used to improve the health care they receive and not be used improperly."
That is precisely the point of objections by those who see the Clinton regulation – now become the Bush regulation – as improperly opening the door to a variety of abuses of patient-record privacy.
For example, under the new rule, patients' names, addresses and health conditions can be made public to assist manufacturers in marketing their health products.
In a statement March 29 to NewsMax.com, Frist had said that "medical records are generated for the care of the patient, and this must remain our foremost concern."
His April 12 statement concentrated instead on concerns of the health industry that the new regulation would be costly and burdensome for it to administer.
A surgeon himself, Frist is a member of a Tennessee family that pioneered in development of Hospital Corporation of America, one of the nation's largest chains of hospitals and health facilities.
In his latest position statement, Frist said:
"There are a number of problems in the current regulations that could impede quality health care and pose unreasonable and costly compliance burdens.
"These include the 'minimum necessary' requirement, the prior written-consent requirements and the application of the rule of oral communication.
"I urge the administration to move quickly to provide guidance to affected parties and to make changes to the rule to ease the compliance burden on doctors, hospitals, employers and health researchers, and to make sure that the rules do not necessarily impede the delivery of quality health care to patients."
Frist had said originally, "In my role as chairman of the Public Health Subcommittee, I will continue to follow this issue to ensure that strong privacy protections are enforced."
Asked Monday whether the senator had any plans through the key subcommittee he chairs to review, modify or even revoke the Clinton regulation that Bush adopted, a Frist staffer, Margaret Camp, replied only:
"We are reviewing our options."
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