Insurance: HIPPA Headaches

by : Jeffrey Voudrie

Don't you just love government red tape? This time the bureaucratic process has given us a real doozy--it's called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA for short. And the unintended affects of HIPPA could have a dramatic effect on you.

HIPAA legislation took effect in April of 2001. It set national standards for the protection of 'individually identifiable health information.' Specifically, the Rule relates to how health care organizations share and divulge medical information.

There are good reasons for these new protections. They are designed to prevent unauthorized invasions into your medical privacy.

If you've ever received a letter from a drug company marketing their solution to one of your ailments, chances are the information was purchased from your pharmacy making them aware of your condition. The new HIPAA regulations are designed to prevent this and other unauthorized releases of your medical information.

Basically, health care providers now must have your written permission before they can release any of your medical information to anyone else. This can cause some very awkward situations.

For instance, one man's wife recently went to the doctor. The doctor sent her to the hospital for some tests. The hospital in turn admitted her. She was unable to contact her husband, and after several hours, he tried to find out where she was and how she was doing. But neither the doctor's office nor the hospital would provide him any information.

In fact, the doctor's office wouldn't even tell him what hospital they sent her to or that she had been admitted. He had to call all of the local hospitals in his area to try to locate her. The hospitals wouldn't tell him anything either! Only after hours of frantically searching for his wife was he able to convince the doctor's office to at least tell him what hospital she was in.

The problem is that HIPPA regulations are being applied differently from place to place. While HIPAA regulations do permit the release of general information, some organizations take the safest route for them and won't release any information unless specifically authorized by the patient. At other institutions however, little has changed. HIPPA merely brings some conformity to how they've always handled privacy matters.

There are other scenarios in which these regulations could impact you. For instance, let's say that you have a 19-year old child attending college who is involved in an activity that resulted in their need for medical care. Since a 19-year old is considered an adult, they would have the power to keep you from being told of their medical condition or even contacted.

Even though their medical bills might be covered under your insurance plan, you would not be privy to any of the medical information. In fact, you might be prevented from even visiting them if they indicate to the hospital that they don't want visitors. One hospital we spoke with said hospital security guards would prevent such visits when requested by the patient.

HIPAA impacts the sharing of information if you are single or in a non-traditional relationship.

Nowadays, many older couples forgo marriage and live together for financial reasons. Same-sex relationships are more common. You may be a widow or widower. In any of these situations, medical providers are no longer required to provide information to others without proper authorization. It is important that those in these situations have the proper documents in place that would allow someone else to make medical decisions if you are unable.

So what can you do? First, pay attention to the forms you fill out that authorize the health care provider to release your information. It is important that you list those that you would want to know about your condition.

Secondly, it is vital that you have a Medical Power of Attorney in place which names the person (and alternates) authorized to make medical decisions on your behalf should you be incapacitated. Forms granting the release of medical information don't provide for someone to make decisions on your behalf.

Lastly, you may want to add a HIPAA release authorization to existing estate planning documents such as trusts, living wills and powers of attorney