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What is HIPAA?

HIPAA is not that fat animal with short legs and bulbous head.  It’s an acronym that stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and its provisions are bigger than any hippo you have ever seen.  One of its main goals was to protect your private health information from anyone except those people or entities you want to see the records.  Overall, the goal of protecting your personal medical information is good, as you certainly don’t want that information out in the public.  The goal of protection can lead to unintended consequences however, as no medical personnel will reveal records without a privacy release usually called a “HIPAA” form.

You have undoubtedly seen HIPAA forms because every time you go to a doctor’s office or hospital, they invariably ask you to sign a privacy release form.  That is to allow the doctor to provide enough of your health information to insurance companies to get payment, or to collaborate with other medical personnel on your care.  The reason you are always asked to sign off on permission for such a limited release of information is because there are severe financial penalties if the doctor gives out your information without your permission.  Those penalties can be from $100 to $50,000 or more per violation, with an annual cap of $1,500,000.  There can even be prison time if the violation was willful.  The penalties are the invisible hippopotamus in the room.  No wonder the medical providers are careful about getting your permission.

It is advisable for everyone to have a separate HIPAA primary release form signed, in case of sudden incapacity and hospitalization.  For example, if you become unconscious and need to be hospitalized for treatment, it is too late to sign a HIPAA release form.  It might be difficult or impossible for family members to speak with the doctors and nurses, because they don’t want to be subject to penalties for giving out your private medical information.

The simple solution is to sign a HIPAA form naming those family members you want to know your condition.  This can then get that medical information from the doctors or hospital or pharmacy.  If you sign such a HIPAA form, make sure you tell your spouse, or children, or whomever you name, where you keep it.  Or better, give them a copy.  That is advisable, because the very time they need it is when you are unable to communicate, and that means you can’t tell them where it is.

All this is quite common sense, but let’s face it, none of us sits around all day thinking of these things.  Life goes on and we don’t give it a thought.  The old adage that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies here.  So along with a will and durable power of attorney, a HIPAA release form is one of those must have documents.



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