Friday, April 18, 2003

Skip the flowers; privacy policy keeps patient info under wraps

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Kroger Pharmacist Darrel Dunker (left) advises a customer about the Kroger policy regarding release of information.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
Irene Hess couldn't talk to an insurance company about her son's care.

Karen Marshall found out she needed her husband's permission to talk to their health insurance company about his coverage.

And Bill Kennedy wonders how many forms he'll have to sign before he can talk to doctors and pharmacists about his 93-year-old mother's health.

The medical information safeguards are results of the new federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which went into effect Monday. What the act means for many Tristate residents is more forms, more questions - and more privacy protection that many consumers thought they had already.

HIPAA outlines how health providers are allowed to share medical information. The law affects insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, dentists, pharmacies, nursing homes, blood banks, and organ and tissue banks, along with other entities.

When Marshall, of Mariemont, called her family's health insurance company this week with a question about her husband's coverage, they asked her if her husband had given permission for them to talk about his account.

"We've been married 32 years!" she said.

Patients have these rights regarding their medical information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act:
• The right to inspect and get a copy of their medical records.
• The right to request corrections to inaccuracies in their records.
• The right to find out where their information has been shared for purposes other than care, payment or health care operations.
• The right to restrict the use or disclosure of health information, including in a hospital directory.
• The right to direct that a provider send health information to a certain address or phone number.
• The right to see a provider's confidentiality policy.
More information:
She told them she had his permission, and got the information she wanted.

Shirley Ross, 65, of Milford wondered why she had to sign an extra form at her doctor's visit.

"They stop you and make you sign this thing and hand you this privacy paper," she said.

She didn't read the form or the brochure, which outlines consumers' rights under the new law. Among the provisions: Providers can no longer give out or sell patient information for marketing purposes.

"I thought I already had privacy protection," Ross said. "Maybe that's why I was getting all those calls from drug reps."

Under HIPAA, patients can limit how much information is given out about them and their health. Patients are given information on their privacy rights as they're treated or admitted to a medical facility, said Mary Lopez, a nurse-attorney in the Health Alliance's HIPAA program management office.

A patient admitted to a hospital, for example, can choose not to be listed in the facility's directory. That means a journalist can't call and find out anything about that person's condition. But it also means friends and family can't either. And cards and flowers won't be delivered to that patient's room - they'll be sent back.

"I have a feeling that when patients find out all that it entails - that their mail will be sent back, that their flowers will be sent back - that they won't take advantage of opting out" of a facility's directory, Lopez said.

Consumers who pick up prescriptions for other people - spouses, parents, adult children, etc. - are being asked to sign "good faith" forms that say the patient has given permission for them to pick up their medication.

Pharmacist Darrel Dunker, who works at the Kroger pharmacy in the lobby of the UC Medical Arts Building, said he hasn't heard any complaints from customers about the new law, though a few have had questions.

"It just adds a few minutes for people who don't understand it. We have to educate them and get their signature," he said.

Have you tried calling your mother's doctor this week to ask whether her new medication is what's making her so forgetful? Unless your mother - or father or spouse or adult child - has cleared it, the doctor can't discuss the patient's care with you.

Kennedy, who shares a Northside home with his mother, Nettie, is trying to be proactive when it comes to HIPAA's regulations.

"I'm trying to do whatever I have to do with these various providers before it becomes necessary to pick anything up," he said.

He's already called the pharmacies his mother uses, and he plans to talk to her about getting permission to talk to her doctors. He still needs to find out what he needs to do about her insurance provider.

Hess, of Fort Mitchell, has been handling her adult son Ted's health insurance for the last several months. But when she called Monday to let them know some extra information they'd requested had been sent in, the clerk told her Ted would have to handle it.

"After discussing it several times with them over the past months, they are telling me that my son, who has none of the paperwork and is away at college, must contact them!"


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