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The Dawning of the Age of HIPAA

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Originally Published April 30, 2003
Written By: Attorney
Jeffrey A. Marshall, CELA*

What is a HIPAA?  Is it…

(A) a female hippopotamus, 

(B) a horrible new disease, or 

(C) new federal regulations, effective on April 14th, which protect the privacy rights of patients?  

Well, if you answered (C) federal regulations covering patient privacy, you’re correct, and you have probably visited your doctor’s office in the last several weeks.  

The privacy rules of HIPAA give patients the right to view, get copies of, and limit access to their patient records.  Patients can file complaints if they feel that a health care provider has violated their privacy rights.  Doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers can face fines and prison terms if they flagrantly violate the HIPAA regulations, and therefore, they are very much concerned with staying on the right side of these new legal requirements.   

HIPAA puts restrictions on who has access to your medical information. If you are admitted to a nursing home and you don’t want anyone to know it, the nursing home is not allowed to tell anyone –not even your family, friends, or clergy.

HIPAA is creating a lot of additional work for health care providers.  Patients going in for a doctor’s appointment can anticipate being presented with lots of paperwork about the doctor’s privacy policies and asking for consent to use patient information.  The sale of paper shredders and locking file cabinets must be skyrocketing! 

HIPAA was enacted in 1996 and it has taken all these years to devise and implement the regulations.  The privacy rules initially required patients to give written consent for the release of all medical information. But, after much protest by health care providers, the final rules establish broad exemptions allowing the sharing of patient information for purposes of treatment, payment and certain health care operations.

If you ever become incapacitated as a result of an accident or illness, the HIPAA rules allow your medical information to be disclosed to your authorized representative, such as the person you named as your agent in your health care power of attorney.  If you don’t have a health care power of attorney, this is just one more reason why you should get one.  With a health care power of attorney, you name someone to make medical decisions for you anytime you can’t make them for yourself.

The regulations are so complicated that confusion is widespread. Nevertheless, health care providers, patients, and families and friends of patients will have to do their best to deal with them. 

More information on HIPAA is available at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/.