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Today’s Washington Post has an interesting story about how the privacy regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) are not being enforced:

In the three years since Americans gained federal protection for their private medical information, the Bush administration has received thousands of complaints alleging violations but has not imposed a single civil fine and has prosecuted just two criminal cases.

Of the 19,420 grievances lodged so far, the most common allegations have been that personal medical details were wrongly revealed, information was poorly protected, more details were disclosed than necessary, proper authorization was not obtained or patients were frustrated getting their own records.

The government has “closed” more than 73 percent of the cases — more than 14,000 — either ruling that there was no violation, or allowing health plans, hospitals, doctors’ offices or other entities simply to promise to fix whatever they had done wrong, escaping any penalty.

“Our first approach to dealing with any complaint is to work for voluntary compliance. So far it’s worked out pretty well,” said Winston Wilkinson, who heads the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, which is in charge of enforcing the law.

While praised by hospitals, insurance plans and doctors, the approach has drawn strong criticism from privacy advocates and some health industry analysts. They say the administration’s decision not to enforce the law more aggressively has not safeguarded sensitive medical records and has made providers and insurers complacent about complying.

The lax enforcement of HIPAA could be addressed if HIPAA were to have a private right of action. Currently, HIPAA doesn’t provide a way for individuals to sue for privacy violations. HIPAA would be more effective with a private right of action, which would prevent enforcement from being stymied whenever an agency isn’t interested in enforcing a law. The Bush Administration has little love for the HIPAA privacy regulations, which it tried to kill when it took over power from the Clinton Administration. Instead of killing HIPAA, the Bush Administration rewrote parts of the regulations, weakening them significantly. And now, the strategy seems to be to let the HIPAA regulations sink into irrelevance.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

If you are interested in privacy and data security issues, there are many great ways Professor Solove can help you stay informed:
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