image The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 was enacted in an effort to:

  • Establish national standards for electronic health information transactions
  • Secure the privacy of health data

In addition to protecting your privacy, HIPAA may also:

  • Reduce the chance that you will lose your health insurance
  • Make it easier for you to change insurance if you lose your coverage or do not have any insurance

And although it was designed in part to simplify matters, healthcare providers continue to struggle to understand and meet the requirements of the act. This gives you—as a healthcare consumer —all the more reason to understand what HIPAA basically means to your care. That way, you can be confident your information is being handled properly, and take action if it is not.

HIPAA’s Privacy Rule

HIPAA is perhaps most well known for its Privacy Rule. The intent of the Privacy Act is to give people more control over the sharing of their personal medical information, while at the same time making it easier for them to access details about their own health and healthcare.

Protecting Your Information From Others

According to the Privacy Rule, healthcare providers must take great pains not to reveal your health information to employers or others who are not entitled to view it. For example, they may not pass on information to companies who are thinking about hiring you, or who want to sell you their latest cures or devices. Also, they may not share any information about mental health consultations.

Such regulations do make it more difficult for family members and caregivers to get information about your health, unless you give them explicit permission, generally in writing. Critics say the regulations could also make it less common for doctors to discuss their patients’ health with them, due to anxiety over infringing on privacy rights. For example, whereas doctors were once willing to discuss lab work on the phone, you are now more likely to get reports in the mail that are clearly marked "personal and confidential." Additionally, doctors’ offices may ask anyone assisting with your healthcare for identification before speaking to them.

However, there are cases when information can be legally shared. Those who are entitled to your health information include:

  • Doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies for purposes of billing and payment
  • Anybody in or out of your family whom you designate to help you with your healthcare, including paying the bills
  • Safety regulators looking into care at nursing homes
  • Public health officials under some circumstances
  • Police when a crime is committed

Granting You Greater Access to Your Own Information

The Privacy Act also gives you greater access to this information. Whereas at one time it was often difficult to view your own medical charts and files, you now have the right to know anything pertaining to your health. Under HIPAA, you are legally entitled to:

  • Receive a copy of your health record if you ask for it
  • Make corrections in the official file
  • Be told how your health information is used and who it is shared with
  • Choose whether you want your information to be shared

You also have the right to file a complaint with your healthcare provider or with the federal Office of Civil Rights if you think your information has been misused. Call the regional Civil Rights office nearest you for more information. You will be asked to provide the specifics of what happened and the reason for your complaint.

Buying or Changing Health Plans

HIPAA offers some protections if you have one of the following types of insurance coverage:

  • Health insurance through employers
  • Individual (non-employment based) health insurance
  • Coverage through a high-risk pool

While the law is complex and has limitations, here are some protections that HIPAA provides:

  • Allow you to buy insurance even if you have pre-existing condition
  • Stop health insurance companies from denying you coverage because of your health or your family member's health
  • Guarantee your right to buy insurance
  • Guarantee your right to renew your insurance

What Organizations Does HIPAA Apply to?

The HIPAA mandates apply to just about anybody who deals with your healthcare, including:

  • Doctors, dentists
  • Hospitals, clinics, nursing homes
  • Drug and medical equipment providers
  • Third-party medical billing companies and clearinghouses
  • Health insurers, group healthcare plans, HMOs, Medicare, Medicaid, and other government sponsored healthcare programs