In a perfect world it makes sense to assign every American a health identification number to store individual medical records in a national database. Look at the pluses.
No matter where you arewhen stricken with sickness or injury, attending medical personnel would have at their finger-tips your entire medical history. Vital health information made so quickly available on computers could save your life or prevent long-term illness. No one in the medical community denies that this would be a hugely helpful tool.
But, we do not live in a perfect world.
We live in a world where such easily accessible health data could be terribly abused -- by insurers, employers, researchers, government, even blackmailers.
We've seen all this happen with Social Security numbers, so why couldn't it with health identifier numbers? The downside of this potential loss of privacy is much greater than the upside benefits the database would provide.
The notion of a "health identifier," however, won't go away soon. With little discussion and virtually no publicity, it was mandated by law in the Republican Congress' 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
The mandate's focus is on streamlin-ing the transfer of medical data, not personal privacy. The law also calls for a nonpartisan commission to hold public hearings before recommending to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services how best to implement the "identifier" system.
Fortunately, in light of widespread public objections, the just-formed 17-member panel is taking a hard second look at the entire project, as well they should. Many Americans have been damaged by supposedly "confidential" financial, employment or tax information finding its way into the wrong hands.
What's to ensure the same thing won't happen with health records? If government can't guarantee sensitive medical data will be kept only in the proper hands, then Congress should repeal the ill-considered "identifier" mandate.