New regulations go too far in protecting patient privacy

Hippo - big, fat, bloated behemoth that resides in the jungles of Africa.

HIPAA - big, fat, bloated behemoth that resides in the jungles of the federal bureaucracy.

One of these critters - the hippo - has been around for millennia wandering from mud hole to mud hole munching on tender blades of grass without bothering a soul. Many people love hippos even though they are quite ugly.

Nobody, it seems, loves HIPAA, which has been around for little more than a week. In fact, many doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators are praying for the quick demise this grotesque beast.

HIPAA is an one of those quaint acronyms government agencies like to use to boil a bewildering mouthful of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo into a single word. This one - HIPAA - stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It is a new new federal law which took on April 14. It affects primarily doctors, nurses, hospital staff, insurance companies, but also the media, and family and friends of people who are injured or are sick and are receiving medical assistance. It effectively puts a gag on all health care providers - a gag that they do not deserve and certainly do not need or want.

Though the health care system has been very protective of patient confidentiality for years, HIPAA adds another layer of confidentiality to the system. Some say it is patient privacy overkill. We agree.

Remember those reports on the radio not so long ago saying who had been admitted to the hospital so friends and relatives could send them cards and flowers? Those days are over. Such reports are clearly a violation of HIPAA regulations.

Remember when you could call the hospital to see how Aunt Mabel was doing? Forget it. Another big no-no under HIPAA. Now the hospital cannot confirm or deny whether Aunt Mabel is there unless she signed a nine-page waiver when she was admitted.

The privacy rules are so comprehensive that putting the names of patients on bulletin boards in nurses stations is no longer allowed. A passerby might be able to figure out who is in the hospital, which would be a privacy violation under HIPAA rules.

Similarly, nurses better not leave bottles of medication with patients' names on them lying around the room where an unauthorized person might see them - grounds for termination, or worse, if seen by the wrong person.

Nurses better learn to whisper when referring to patients by name, lest the patient's identity be overheard by someone in the hallway or the next room.

Heaven forbid should a doctor, nurse, hospital custodian, cook or administrator mention the name of a patient to a friend or relative in casual conversation at the grocery store - a HIPAA violation punishable by jail time and a fine.

What started out as a noble attempt to ensure that people who changed jobs didn't automatically lose their health insurance somehow mutated in Congress when senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and other liberal leaning legislators got a hold of it. What began as the pursuit of health insurance portability became an ominous body of rules and regulations restricting access to information.

In order to deal with these regulations hospitals and medical clinics across the country have had to train their staffs, develop new policies and procedures, purchase new computer systems, and absorb many other "soft costs," including new forms, new agreements with suppliers, and consulting fees. Gwen Dayton, general counsel for the Oregon Hospital Association, puts the price tag of the new privacy rules at $40 billion - twice the amount needed to fund the war in Iraq!

Locally, Larry Davy, administrator at Wallowa Memorial Hospital, estimates new HIPAA rules cost his facility more than $30,000. If the cost wasn't a bitter pill to swallow, Davy said, early indications are that patients in Wallowa County want their friends and relatives know when they are sick and injured. They don't necessarily want the extra privacy. They want prayers, flowers, and get well cards from people who care about them.

Too bad. They are going to get heavy duty privacy anyway, unless they "opt out" by signing waivers, which, by the way, is the last thing they should have to think about when they are admitted to the hospital.

Not surprisingly a movement to repeal this ill-conceived legislation is already gaining momentum. The sooner the better as far as we're concerned. R.S.

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