HIPAAIf you are in the hospital, the last thing you want is for a family member or a trusted friend to be denied information about your condition or prognosis.  But this could happen if you haven’t already given authorization about who can receive details of your medical condition.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal law that protects health care privacy and prevents disclosure of health care information to unauthorized people.  The law was enacted to keep health care providers from disclosing a patient’s private medical information willy-nilly to anyone who wants to see it. While the law’s intentions were good, its implementation can sometimes mean that doctors or hospital officials block the release of information to people the patient is close to and who should be privy to that information.

HIPAA authorizes the release of medical information only to a patient’s “personal representative.”  HIPAA does, however, have complex but flexible rules that allow medical providers to disclose information to a person who is involved in a patient’s care.  The HIPAA rules allow disclosure of information that is relevant to the caregiver’s involvement in the patient’s care. While this caregiver policy usually works well, “usually” is the operative word.  This is why it is important for the patient to give specific written authorization, known as a HIPAA release form, for all people who may be involved in the patient’s care — particularly if there is more than one caregiver or in the case of more distant family members or friends who should be informed about the patient’s condition and treatment.

Unfortunately, although all release forms must be HIPAA-compliant, there is no standard form.  Many health care providers have their own forms, and, if you can plan in advance, you should use the forms of as many of the providers (doctors, hospitals, clinics) that may be involved in the patient’s care.   Many providers have a printable authorization form on their websites.  In addition, your state may have its own rules regarding these forms.  If provider- or state-specific forms are not available, you can try a generic one, such as the one offered by Caring.com.

You also need to ensure that your power of attorney and health care proxy contain a HIPAA clause that explains that the agent is also the personal representative for the purposes of health care disclosures under HIPAA. For details about this issue, click here.

For more about health care privacy rules, click here.