Protecting Patient Privacy; Health Insurance Act Limits Access to Medical Records

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 6, 2003 | Go to article overview

Protecting Patient Privacy; Health Insurance Act Limits Access to Medical Records


Byline: Marguerite Higgins, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A new federal law is changing the way patients buy prescription drugs, get a checkup, fill out an insurance claim and receive flowers in the hospital. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, went into effect April 14, requiring medical providers to protect medical information and notify patients about their privacy rights.

The regulations are part of an overhaul that has cost the health care industry $1.76 billion to standardize and improve electronic transactions between insurance companies and health care providers.

The Department of Health and Human Services feared the faster exchange of health information would compromise the security and privacy of patients, prompting changes in the way physicians disclose the information.

The largest changes are at hospitals, doctors' offices and clinics. Patients are given a four-page pamphlet outlining their privacy rights and must sign that they have read the form before they are examined.

Admitted hospital patients have the choice of not listing their name in the hospital directory, in effect eliminating their existence at the facility.

Hospital staff will not confirm unregistered patients in the building or their condition, said Diane Meyer, privacy officer for MedStar Health, a nonprofit organization that operates three hospitals in the District and four in Baltimore.

"We let the patients know that when they opt out of the directory, that means there will be no phone calls, visitors or deliveries coming to their room," she said.

Family members are not admitted either, Ms. Meyer added.

Administrators at hospitals like Washington Hospital Center have been more cautious about giving out patient information since the new policy started, Ms. Meyer added.

"They're taking the conservative approach to the point of not releasing information unless it's absolutely necessary," she said.

But the rules are disrupting business coming into the hospitals. For example, florists cannot deliver if they do not know if a patient is in a hospital.

However, the Society for American Florists, an Alexandria trade organization with 15,000 members, said only a handful of florists nationwide have reported hospitals blocking deliveries because of the new rules.

"A lot of times this issue depends on the complexity of the hospital. A larger hospital will have more limitations for deliveries, but this has not been a big problem," spokeswoman Jennifer Sparks said.

The new regulations also could keep pastors and priests from finding and visiting members of their congregations who are admitted to facilities.

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