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Privacy rules designed to defy common sense

One of the more cynical axioms of the Law of Unintended Consequences is that any attempt to make things better can usually be relied upon to make things worse.

A particularly cruel example of this took place in New York City’s Germantown some years ago when well-meaning neighbors attempted to help the daughter of a pair of particularly hapless junkies.

The little girl’s parents frequently disappeared for days on end, leaving her to fend for herself. Neighbors who regularly found the child searching trashcans for food scraps, would take her in and care for her until her parents returned.

During one of her parents’ absences, a woman who had a particularly close relationship with the child, took her to the New York Children’ s Hospital for a check up. There, it was discovered the little girl was desperately undernourished—so undernourished, in fact, that, at the age of seven, she was the size of an average four-year-old.

At the urging of the hospital, New York’s child welfare authorities were informed of the little girl’s plight. The woman, who had taken her to the hospital, sought permission to become her foster mother.

But the child welfare workers had different ideas. They returned the child to her parents. When, six months later, they discovered their solution was not working, they shifted the girl to a foster home—not with the neighbor who knew and loved her, but to professional foster parents miles away in The Bronx.

There is no happy ending to this story. The neighbors later learned the girl had been removed from The Bronx foster home on suspicions that she had been abused, and shunted from foster home to foster home until, finally, she ran away—presumably to live on the streets.

Why had she not been placed in care with the neighbor who wanted to take her in? Government regulations: The woman didn’t fit the department’s criteria. No matter that she knew and loved the child, she was deemed to be too old to be a foster parent.

Another example of efforts to make things better making things infinitely worse can be found in the health care regulations guaranteeing the confidentiality of our medical records—not least, those imposed by HIPPA or, to give its full name, the Health Insurance Portability and Privacy Act.

Nobody can deny that a guarantee of privacy is, on the whole, a very good thing. It is quite unacceptable for government, or anyone else for that matter, to troll vicariously through our personal medical records.

It seems, however, reasonable to argue the right to privacy is trumped by an even more important right—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Not so, according the health care regulators. People’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is put in jeopardy on a daily basis by medical confidentiality regulations.

One of the most egregious examples forbids the notification of the spouse of people suffering from AIDS and similarly deadly and infectious illnesses unless the sufferer specifically authorizes it. What’s more, this right to privacy continues even after death.

You would be surprised how many people go to their graves leaving the spouses in ignorance of the nature of the deadly illness that carried them off. Spouses, of course, have a right to see the death certificate, but by that time, it’s a bit late to take precautions.

Yet another worrisome example of things being made worse is to be found in the nation’s psychiatric institutions. Even folks with disorders that endanger the lives of themselves and others enjoy a right to total privacy.

Husbands and wives of people who have threatened, or actually committed, violent acts against them can only be informed of their loved one’s diagnosis with the express permission of the patient—the person of all people least qualified to make that judgment.

Nothing could be better designed to undermine further the bonds of trust between spouses already gravely impaired by the frightening effects of mental disorders manifested in acts of violence.

And it’s hard to imagine anything more cruelly calculated to hamper the recovery of vulnerable, mentally ill people than to deprive them of the loving care and support of their families and friends. Yet this is the effect, if not the intention, of the draconian application of the medical privacy rules. GPH✠

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