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HIPAA Guide for Parents and Patients

Are you ready for HIPAA?


Updated January 17, 2009

Have you heard of HIPAA yet?

No, it is not another killer virus that you have to worry about.

HIPAA stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and although it is welcome by many consumer advocacy groups and patients, it is a headache for many doctors and hospitals trying to conform to these new rules. If you haven't heard of HIPAA, you likely soon will, as the Privacy Standards component of the new law goes into effect.

What is HIPAA

HIPAA was passed to help protect and safeguard the security and confidentiality of a person's health information. One part of HIPAA, the Privacy Rule, aims to keep your medical information private and prevent unnecessary disclosures of your protected health information (PHI). That doesn't mean that your doctor can't talk to anyone about your health information. Your doctor can still disclose your PHI (Permissive Disclosure) without your consent in many situations, especially if it is related to treatment, payment or health care operations. For example, if you have a heart attack, your doctor has to tell your insurance company about it to get them to pay your health bills, but your credit card company doesn't have to be told about it.

How will HIPAA affect you?

For many people, HIPAA will have no obvious affect, at least in the sense of what you have to do.

Among the things that you may notice if your doctor must comply with HIPAA is that you should be given a copy of your doctor's notice of privacy policy and you will be asked to sign a form saying that you received it. This notice of privacy policy will include information about how your doctor will protect your PHI, how your PHI might be disclosed without your consent when legally permitted, and how other disclosures of your PHI can be made only with your consent. Signing this form is your acknowledgement that your received the privacy policy. It doesn't mean that you agree with it or that you agree to give up any of your rights, so you should likely sign it.

The Privacy Rule of HIPAA also gives you new Patient Rights. Among these rights are the right to request to amend your medical records or have a letter of disagreement placed into your record, the right to place restrictions on who can be given your PHI, and the right to inspect and copy your medical records. You will likely have to pay for copies though and for any time that your doctor takes to explain what is in the records.

Why would you want to amend your records? Say that you took your 15 month old to the doctor because he was coughing and wheezing and your doctor diagnosed him as having asthma. He gets worse that night and you to go to the ER and they find that he doesn't have asthma, but has croup instead. A few years later you change to a new insurance and they note the previous diagnosis of asthma and refuse to pay for his medicines when he does actually develop asthma because they say it is a preexisting condition. Now if you amend your child's records to say that he actually didn't have asthma when he was 15 months old, then you might be able to get your insurance to cover his asthma treatments.

You can also request that your health care provider communicate with you in a confidential manner, for example, not sending postcard reminders of appointments or leaving messages on an answering machine or where you work.

Other changes you might see is that hospitals and doctor's offices do a better job of keeping information confidential, so you might see charts face down, patient's names no longer listed openly, and hospitals no longer giving out patient's room numbers or acknowledging that a patient is even in the hospital.

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