What Is HIPAA And How Does It Protect My Privacy?

May 25, 2010

Doctors at the General Assembly
Image by Waldo Jaquith via Flickr

“I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Your immediate reaction is to turn and run, right?

Believe it or not, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountable Act (HIPAA) is from the government, and it is here to help. It can help protect the privacy of your very sensitive and extremely personal medical records.

Enacted in 1996, this federal law requires that medical providers (doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurance companies and more) keep your medical information and documentation confidential. It also defines the process you must follow to release those records, or share them with other people. It is designed to prevent third parties (newspapers, insurance companies, lawyers, etc.) from accessing this information without your permission.

If you do want to disclose certain medical information to a third party, HIPAA requires that you sign an medical authorization instructing your provider to release the files. To further protect your privacy, these authorizations usually specify which medical files can be released, and are limited to a specific time frame (e.g. the previous 12 months only).

There are certain circumstances in which you’re legally obligated to provide your medical records. The filing of a Worker’s Compensation or Social Security Disability claim are two examples. Your medical files are needed to verify eligibility, and in the case of a Worker’s Compensation claim, whether your injury was work-related.

In both cases, you still must authorize the release of your records. If you choose not to on privacy grounds, your employer’s insurance company or the Social Security Administration will likely reject your claim.

HIPAA also affects your interaction with insurance companies when you buy life and liability insurance. Many underwriters will want to review your medical history before issuing a life insurance policy. You have the right not to disclose this information, just as they have the right not to insure you.

While most liability policies do not ask for medical records, theoretically they could. You must weigh your desire for privacy against your need for coverage. In the case of a liability claim due to injury, your medical records will likely be a key piece of the case, so you’ll probably have to allow some access there as well.

Regardless of the situation, the key to remember is that HIPAA gives you control over who gets access to your medical records. While sometimes it will be necessary to share them, ultimately you are the person who chooses.

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