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Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.'s Medical Records: A Slippery Slope

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Ah, that slippery slope....

As the Rainbow PUSH Coalition's 41st Annual Conference kicked off this week at Chicago's Hilton and Towers, conspicuously absent was Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (D-IL), the son of the founder, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. The father was besieged by media requests seeking information about his son's absence, and a statement was finally released from Rep. Jackson's office Wednesday evening, July 11th.

Here is the verbatim copy of the email I received, in its entirety from his Chicago office:

The following statement came from Congressman Jackson's doctor's office today.

"Information regarding the Congressman's treatment is protected by federal law under the privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 ("HIPAA"). The name of the attending physician and treatment center will not be disclosed in order to protect his continuing privacy. His physician makes the following statement:

"The Congressman is receiving intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder. He is responding positively to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery."

In addition, the rumors about him being treated for alcohol or substance abuse is not true.

Rick Bryant | Chief of Staff
Office of Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (IL-02)

Next question. Does the public have the right to know? And how much does the public have the right to know? Access to copies of his medical records, for example? Now that medical records are available to patients and their families electronically, if you are a public servant, should they be available to the public online?

As we go down this slippery slope, let's not end up crashing.

For our country to expect everyone to be in perfect health 24/7 for their whole life is ridiculous and certainly not the nature of the human condition. Yet we in this great nation of ours, unfortunately too often discriminate against those who are not in perfect health.

Not just on the job. In friendships and in family situations and in places of public accommodation, we discriminate against folks who have medical conditions. Instead of focusing on what they can do, we focus on what they can't do. We put limits on them stricter than what any doctor would place on them!

We judge them unfairly and unkindly and most of the time, not being doctors ourselves, don't know what the heck we are talking about when we do make these harsh decisions -- as if we ourselves are immortal and will never get sick. We worry about the speck in a neighbor's eye and forget about the plank in our own.

But truth be told, most people are not in perfect health. Yet we are led to believe the opposite. Everyone is just a picture of perfect health. It's the other guy who gets sick. Not us. And if you get sick, well, it's your own fault. How self-righteous are we.

There's a whole lot of hiding, dissembling and minimizing of medical conditions going on. Playwright Tennessee Williams had a word for it. Mendacity.

Would we live in a country where people weren't forced to hide and minimize their medical conditions for fear of losing their jobs and not being able to get another, fear of being ostracized by friends and loved ones when the condition is not even contagious. Fear of being discriminated against at stores, bars, restaurants, hotels, airlines, buses. On and on and on.

It's not just Rep. Jackson who's been hounded. Award-winning actress Candice Bergen was pressured to reveal she had a stroke in 2006. A stroke is not contagious. She just finished a three-month run in Gore Vidal's The Best Man on Broadway with James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury to much critical acclaim. A stage run with eight live performances each week is quite physically taxing.

Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk has still not returned to work after suffering a stroke in January. He's being hounded too for update reports. In fact, to protect his privacy Kirk used an alias in checking into the hospital when he first suffered a stroke.

No one should be forced to reveal medical information about themselves to get a job or keep a job unless it directly affects job safety -- such as the pilot of an aircraft, the driver of a school bus. If the treating doctor says it is okay for an employee to return to work or be hired for a particular job, this is sufficient information for the employer to have.

Those of us who vote (and half of registered voters don't, never mind the many who don't bother to even register), stand in the shoes of the employer. So yes, we have a right to the treating doctor's conclusion as to whether and when Rep. Jackson can return to work for his constituents. His doctor gave us that information.

In his statement printed here, the doctor said Rep. Jackson is expected to make a full recovery. That's good news. That's all the public is entitled to know. That is all the public needs to know. Rep. Jackson will be able to continue to serve them. He is getting the medical treatment he needs to do this, and this should be the end of the story.

Otherwise, you might as well rip up HIPAA. If HIPAA can't even protect the rights of a sitting congressman, what good is it? Congress makes these laws. If HIPAA doesn't even protect those who are more powerful than the average Joe or Josie, will HIPAA protect the little guy and gal? You and me?