Friday, July 6, 2007

Stop cruel treatment of families: Fix healthcare privacy law

American medicine and its practitioners are among the finest anywhere in the world. However, getting to that treatment through the maze of government and insurance paperwork and waiting for an appointment is another matter entirely.

Now relatives and friends of patients are ruefully discovering an equally frustrating obstacle in the medical bureaucracy: medical professionals and health-care personnel who stonewall when asked even the most fundamental questions about a patient and his or her condition.

Investigators at the Department of Health and Human Resources have uncovered the culprit: widespread ignorance and misunderstanding about rules written into HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and a knee-jerk tendency of medical personnel to say "No" when asked for patient information.

Families that have been denied rudimentary information about patients because medical personnel insisted that HIPAA prohibits sharing information have generated thousands of complaints.

This bungled understanding of HIPAA not only has led to absurdities, but to a dangerous lack of information for families who must decide on health care for a relative too old or ill to make decisions.

This example of silliness gone wild was turned up by HHS investigators. Supervisors decided that nursing home birthday parties in Arizona and New York should be cancelled for fear that disclosing a resident's date of birth would violate HIPAA regulations.

Then there's the graver experience of an Oklahoma woman who rushed to the bedside of her 82-year-old mother in Tampa, Fla., because nurses refused to tell the daughter anything on the telephone about her mother's condition--a stroke--and continued to refuse after the daughter arrived in Florida, blaming HIPAA for their silence.

The fact is HIPAA has no such suffocating restrictions. HIPAA allows medical professionals to speak freely to family and friends, unless the patient objects, and signed authorizations are not required.

This unnecessary misuse of HIPAA must be eliminated, even if it takes another act of Congress.

Families endure enough anxiety about their loved ones without misinformed medical personnel refusing to share information that can lead to possibly lifesaving health-care decisions.

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