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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Birthday parties have been cancelled: Secrecy through HIPAA

An Emergency Room nurse in Illinois told Gerard Nussbaum he could not stay with his father-in-law while the elderly man was being treated for a stroke. Another nurse threatened Gerard with arrest for scanning the older man’s medical chart to prove to her that she was about to administer a dangerous second round of sedatives.

Both nurses claimed—wrongly--that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibited them from helping. But Gerard knew better, as a health care and HIPAA consultant, so he stood his ground.

Recent government studies have found some health care providers apply the HIPAA regulations overzealously, blocking family members and caretakers from learning useful information. Birthday parties in nursing homes in New York and Arizona have been cancelled for fear that revealing residents’ dates of birth would be illegal.

In reality, HIPAA says health care providers may share information with others unless the patient objects, but does not require them to do so. Their disclosure of information is voluntary; the law leaves them broad discretion.

Advice to patient advocates: Stand your ground with health care providers if you need some information to help your patient.

Read another of our privacy stories, or read Jane Gross’ source story in today’s New York Times.

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