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Privacy Regulations Go Into Effect, With Modifications to Come Later

Cheryl A. Thompson

Despite the receipt of more than 24,000 written comments, President Bush announced April 12 that the federal rule on health information privacy would go into effect two days later and that the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will recommend modifications to address concerns raised by the public.

The privacy rule, developed by HHS during the Clinton administration and released in late December 2000, sets federal standards for protecting the privacy of personal health records (see February 1 AJHP News). Originally set to go into effect February 26, the rule underwent additional review by the incoming administration, with a new effective date set for April 14. HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson accepted through March 30 comments from the public regarding the final rule, which differed substantially from the rule proposed in 1999. In general, pharmacists and other health care providers have to become fully compliant with the rule within the next two years.

Thompson said that HHS will clarify through guidelines or recommended modifications to the rule that "pharmacists will be able to fill prescriptions over the phone and serve their customers in a timely manner." Not mentioned by Thompson were various other issues raised by pharmacy organizations in comments submitted to HHS. For example, the rule requires a pharmacist to have a patient’s signed consent form before filling a prescription—an inconvenience for patients who want a family member to bring in their prescription for a pharmacist to dispense. Similar issues were noted in a General Accounting Office report to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.