- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

   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 improveelectronic 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 theirexistence 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 onlya 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.
   Robert Maddox, pastor of Briggs Memorial Baptist Church in Bethesda, said he usually knows where sick members are staying.
   “But if I have to call around, I might not get the information. I just try to be upfront and let the administrators know that I’m there to help,” he said.
   Signs are plastered around pharmacy counters at Target, Wal-Mart, CVS and grocery stores informing patients of their rights. The same notification is printed on the back of prescription receipts.
   A consumer picking up a prescription for someone else is encouraged to sign a “good faith” form, which lets the pharmacy know that the patient has given permission for the person picking up the medication.
   Insurance companies now require spouses and otherfamily members to have written authorization from the insured relative to getaccess to any information.
   Also, pharmacies, health plans and other entities must obtain an individual’s authorization before disclosing patient information for marketing purposes.
   The change isn’t new for someinsurance companies. Aetna Inc. began mandating the policy to comply with state laws in 2001, said Tom Young, chief privacy officer.
   “Our customers aren’t seeing much change now because we had a lot of these rules in place before HIPAA went into effect,” he said.
   Mr. Young said the customer-service department is prepared to handle anyone calling to inquire about a client’s account information.
   “We have procedures in place that validate the identity of the member requesting the information or, of say, the parent who is getting information on a member who is a minor child,” Mr. Young said.
   In that case, a parent would give the child’s ID number and date of birth, Mr. Young said. But older children would be able to limit access to their health records according to state laws.
   While the federal law limits access to an individual’s medical records, it does not give consumers the final say, said Lisa Murphy, a partner in the employee-benefits group of Washington law firm Miller & Chevalier.
   Patient information may be given to health care providers and insurance companies without consent when dealing with treatment and payment, Ms. Murphy said.
   Consumers may request a review and change in their medical information. While the request doesn’t guarantee a change, it is added in the information a doctor sends to an insurance company, she said.

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