Editorial -- HIPAA horror stories

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

When the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act -- HIPAA -- went into effect in April of 2003, it was apparent from the start that medical information-gathering by newspapers was to become harder by several degrees.

With 16 months of HIPAA law under the nation's belt, it's easy to see that newsgathering organizations are facing closed doors at hospitals, who are not allowed, under the law, to release any information not previously approved by a patient. No more reports on who's been admitted, who has had a baby and who is going home -- the neighborly kind of news we all used to take for granted in community newspapers.

But hospitals and health care providers, fearing stiff fines for not properly safeguarding patient information, are reading the law very strictly and shun inquiries from much more than just the press -- police investigations are being thwarted; parents checking on their college children are being denied medical information; and medical research is being stymied because researchers aren't allowed to have the names of recently-released patients for followup studies.

Law enforcement agencies across the nation are decrying the HIPAA roadblocks. Police have been unable to make cold calls to hospitals, as they make searches for missing persons or potential suspects believed to have been injured in wrecks or felony acts. Even though HIPAA specifically allows hospitals to release information if police believe a crime has been committed, the new rules are so dense and vague that most hospitals are choosing to err on the side of their own self-protection.

Parents of college-bound children: be aware that if your child doesn't complete an "Authorization for Use and Disclosure of Private Health Information" form, medical personnel will deny the release of any information about a student.

Even doctors are feeling pressure to maintain a solid wall of privacy concerning their patients, lest they be charged with breaking privacy rules. So the new rules are fundamentally changing how doctors may talk to one another about a specific patient and how they may exchange information with hospitals.

Privacy is certainly a good thing, in this age of information technology which threatens our most basic rights, but when heavy-handed laws are enacted which impede the delivery of medical care, we wonder -- isn't it time to revisit these laws and repeal those that are obviously not in the best interest of either our health or our privacy?

-- GWD

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