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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Tuesday, 9 March 2004

Topic: The Law

International Women's Day, HIPPA, and guns...

Yesterday was International Women's Day -- marked by women's groups around the world. It was, of course, commemorated at the United Nations and is designated in many countries as a national holiday. Not here.

Patt Morrison writing in the Los Angeles Times gives us a hint why.

See Ashcroft Gunning for Peek at Private Medical Records
Patt Morrison, The Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2004

Morrison simply notes a difference in how we handle gun laws, where the buyer's privacy is of critical importance, and how we handle one of the other big moral issues. Here's her opening.
Wrap your mind around this one.

It's the law now: If you buy a gun on, say, Monday morning, then by the time you've had breakfast on Tuesday, the record of that sale will be in the shredder -- gone.

Don't thank me -- thank John Ashcroft, your attorney general.

The man is an absolute guard dog when it comes to sticking up for the privacy of gun owners. He wouldn't even let his FBI agents use the agency's own database to find out whether any of the 1,200 people it detained after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had bought any guns lately. They might be arrested, they might be jailed until the crack of doom without seeing a lawyer or a loved one -- but we'll never know whether they bought a gun.

Now Ashcroft, the man who won't let the sun go down on gun-buying records, has sent out process servers to go knocking on the doors of six of the nation's Planned Parenthood offices -- one of them in Los Angeles and another in San Diego -- with subpoenas demanding those most private of records: medical data on thousands of patients, because he's being sued over a new law making so-called partial birth abortion a federal crime.
Yeah, well, as someone who has been involved in hospital systems work, I can tell you we were told we had to take HIPAA (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) really seriously. The patient owns the records. No one can be given the possibility of accessing them without the patient's permission, ever.

I guess that excludes the government.

Morrison does point out that women go to Planned Parenthood clinics for lots of reasons: for birth control, for prenatal checkups, for treating sexually transmitted diseases -- which she claims is ninety percent of the visits -- and for abortions.

And when Morrison went to Planned Parenthood's offices Monday, International Women's Day, she found that these subpoenas not only demand records of late-term abortions -- which Planned Parenthood doesn't perform anyway -- but "the language is so vague and broad that it could sweep up files on virtually any abortion of a pregnancy of more than fourteen weeks"

Of course the Justice Department says they will black out any patient identifiers. But Morrison points out that what's not blacked out would be the doctors' names.

I suppose that makes them better targets for the anti-abortion guys with rifles attempting to bring justice to the world. Mass murder must be stopped? Yeah, some of them have that idea, and some doctors are dead. The usual defense is that the shooter was making a necessary intervention to stop a capital crime, or multiple capital crimes. And to be fair, not court has let any of the shooters off based on that logic.

But Ashcroft's inquiry is having the effect on suspects he really intended - it is scaring women away from clinics. Morrison reports that at Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, patients have already called asking, "Should I use a false name?" In San Diego, patients have wondered whether they should take their records home.

It goes like this:
Diane Delille is San Diego's director of clinic training, and she took one call herself. The woman was scheduling an abortion and said, "I'm hearing things on the news [about confidentiality]; I'm reading things in the paper. I'm really terrified about coming to Planned Parenthood."

None of the Planned Parenthood offices even considered handing over any records. Last week, a San Francisco federal judge backed them up, saying flatly that the subpoenas violate patients' privacy, full stop.

The way San Diego's Planned Parenthood director Mark Salo sees it, "There's a variety of opinion about abortion, but not a variety of opinion about whether medical records should be private. This should be alarming to Americans who take the right to privacy seriously, whatever their views on abortion."
Well, buyers of guns get privacy. Women? That's different.

Morrison does refer to White House press release dated April 14, 2001. In it George Bush says that HIPAA protects "the right of every American to have confidence that his or her personal medical records will remain private.... Improving our healthcare system while protecting the confidentiality of patient records will continue to be an important goal of my administration."

Yeah, and in defense of the subpoenas for the records of any woman who has had an abortion at these clinics Ashcroft's Justice Department argued - that "federal common law does not recognize a physician-patient privilege," and, in another matter, "individuals no longer possess a reasonable expectation that their histories will remain completely confidential."

Well, the Ninth Circuit Court out here didn't agree with the administration. No wonder Bush and Ashcroft hate the courts so very much.

But here's a thought...

If the Justice Department thought this all along, what were my systems analysts doing working on firewalls and data scrubbing algorithms and data transfer protocols? Someone should have told us no one had a reasonable expectation, any longer, that personal medical records could be kept private, really. We all could have gone out and had a beer.

Posted by Alan at 16:03 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 9 March 2004 16:09 PST home

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