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Americans need the right to inspect their own medical records, and people who improperly release or mishandle those records should be severely punished.

However 22 states, including Utah, don't grant patients access to their own files. In fact, Utahns have less of a chance of seeing their own private records than do billers, pharmacists, nurses and insurance agents. And the rest of the nation is governed by a patchwork of inconsistent laws that grant varying degrees of access and provide varying penalties for misuse.U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah is sponsoring a bill that would rectify this inequity - allowing people to see their own records while restricting the access by others. The bill enjoys wide support by senators as diverse as Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. - the kind of broad backing that generally comes only when something makes sense beyond much objection.

Not only should patients be allowed to see their records, they should rest assured that no one else will see them without authorization. Bennett's bill grants that guarantee, with the exception that records would be made available in response to subpoenas, war-rants and emergencies.

Most important, it would impose a fine of up to $10,000 each time someone improperly handled a record. That means when the 13-year-old daughter of a medical center clerk decides it would be funny to call patients and erroneously tell them they are infected with HIV, as a Florida girl did recently, someone would have to pay.

That hoax led to the attempted suicide of one patient. Medical records are among the most personal and private documents in anyone's life. A law that standardizes their care is long overdue.