Health act's privacy regulations slated to go into effect April 14

Wallowa Memorial Hospital Privacy Officer Kathy Webster thinks that patient privacy will be enhanced by the implementation of HIPAA regulations. Photo by Rocky Wilson

Phase II of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) will go into effect April 14 and Wallowa Memorial Hospital will be ready for the change. So says the hospital's HIPAA Coordinator and Privacy Officer Kathy Webster.

The federal act was initially passed by Congress in 1996 to simplify health care transactions and provide regulations to ensure the privacy and security of patient information. The act required Congress to write the goals to implement the plan by 1999, but it failed to do so and the writing of regulations' responsibility was shifted over to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Phase I has to do with the electronic transfer of medical information between hospitals, medical facilities such as clinics, and insurance providers. The implementation of that standardization of information data has been moved back to October, 2003.

Phase II deals with the privacy portion of the act and deals with the release of individually identifiable health information.

Health care providers, in opposition to the initial drafts of the act, will retain the ability to disclose protected health information for treatment, payment and healthcare operations.

One big change after April 14 will come when individuals phone the hospital to determine information about a particular patient. Without knowing the patient's name (example, a reporter asking about an unnamed auto wreck victim), no information at all will be reported. Even knowing the name the most an individual can hope for realistically is the location of the individual in the hospital and a one-word description of that person's condition: good, fair, serious or critical.

As soon as a patient enters the hospital, or as soon thereafter without interfering with treatment, the patient will be given and asked to sign a privacy notice explaining how the hospital (or clinic, etc.) may use or disclose that person's medical information.

The patient may ask to restrict information or revoke the giving of information at any time. The patient can also sign an authorization form allowing the realease of certain information other than for treatment, billing or hospital operations.

HIPAA guarantees the patient several rights regarding their medical records. They include the right to an accounting of certain disclosures of the patient's medical information in the six years prior to the date of the request, the right to inspect and obtain a copy of the individual's medical information, the right to receive confidential communications of the patient's medical information by an alternative means or at an alternative location, the right to request an amendment to the patient's medical record and the right to submit a complaint to a hospital or clinic about how the patient's medical information is used or disclosed.

Phase III of HIPAA deals with security regulations and has yet to be drafted.

Though the paperwork will be increased, Webster views HIPAA as a positive thing. She says at present that "it is very frustrating and confusing for the people fielding the calls" because there is no definitive guidelines on how to handle incoming calls. She says at present that calls are often transferred to the patient's room without the patient having any means to filter those calls. With the new system the wishes of the patient regarding the sharing of information will be at the fingertips of the person fielding the call, says Webster.

The training of Wallowa Memorial Hospital staff concerning the HIPAA regulations will take place early in March.

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