HIPAA Will Keep Patient Records Private

March 6, 2003
Posted at: 6:35 p.m. CST

JONESBORO, Ark. -- Sweeping changes are on the way in the health care industry that will affect you and everyone in your family.

Effective April 14, you won't be able to do a lot of things many of us take for granted: Such as calling to find out how someone is doing in the hospital and expecting to read in the newspaper when they're admitted or released. It's all in the name of privacy, in an age when privacy is getting harder to find.

With living in the information age, and the fact that medical records can be transmitted in an instant via the Internet, the federal govrnment has passed HIPAA, a set of laws also known as the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

"With the push of a button, someone has the opportunity to pick up anything on us, any sort of information," said Janet Johnson, HIPAA compliance officer with the Regional Medical Center of NEA. "This is big. I will tell you that we've been working on HIPAA since 2000."

Under new regulations, anyone who intentionally discloses private medical information can be punished with a fine of up to $50,000 and one year in prison. Stiff penalties to make for an even playing field.

"This is the first time that we have had a national directive, a national law that affects the release of patient information and its use, said Iris Devore, St. Bernard's Regional Medical Center Vice-President. "This makes it level. The rules are the same for everyone."

Change doesn't come easy, however. For years, newspapers have printed the hospital admission and dismissal lists, in addition to birth announcements. Under HIPAA, all that will change.

"We are asking all the patients now on admission: 'Would you like to have your name in the paper?' 'Would you like to have the birth in the paper?' " Johnson said.

It used to be that local ministers like Jimmy Adcox would check the hospitals' registry of patients to see if church members were hospitalized, but not anymore.

"I think all of us could see this coming," Adcox said. "For example, if I call the hospital and ask if someone is there, and if I could have their room number, unless they give that information and permission to release that, we won't be able to know that they're there."

Sales of technology to monitor the flow of information, as you might imagine, is skyrocketing. St. Bernard's uses a new system called the "electronic patient folder." in keeping with HIPAA privacy rules, the system tracks who looks at what record, when, and notes whether it's printed, faxed or e-mailed.

"Patients now have the right to know if any information has been released about them," Devore said. "That was for treatment, payment or operations."

The act gives patients the right to restrict information. But there are exceptions when certain circumstances arise.

"Hospitals must report communicable disease," Johnson said. "Hospitals must report acts of violent crimes to police. We must report abuse, child abuse or senior abuse."

Hospital switchboard operators may face the toughest challenge, as they deal with callers less than accepting of these changes, designed to protect everyone's privacy beginning next month. The American Hospital Association claims these changes cost an estimated $22 billion.