How do people use, misuse or abuse Hipaa, the federal regulations protecting patients’ confidential health information? Let us count the ways:
■ Last month, in a continuing care retirement community in Ithaca, N.Y., Helen Wyvill, 72, noticed that a friend hadn’t shown up for their regular swim. She wasn’t in her apartment, either.
Had she gone to a hospital? Could friends visit or call? Was anyone taking care of the dog?
Questions to the staff brought a familiar nonresponse: Nobody could provide any information because of Hipaa.
“The administration says they have to abide by the law, blah, blah,” Ms. Wyvill said. “They won’t even tell you if somebody has died.”
■ Years ago, Patricia Gross, then 56, and a close friend had taken refuge in a cafe at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where Ms. Gross’s husband was dying of cancer. She was lamenting his inadequately treated pain and her own distress when a woman seated at a nearby table walked over.
“She told me how very improper it was to be discussing the details of a patient’s treatment in public and that it was a Hipaa violation,” Ms. Gross recalled.
■ In 2012, Ericka Gray repeatedly phoned the emergency room at York Hospital in York, Pa., where her 85-year-old mother had gone after days of back pain, to alert the staff to her medical history. “They refused to take the information, citing Hipaa,” said Ms. Gray, who was in Chicago on a business trip.
“I’m not trying to get any information. I’m trying to give you information,” Ms. Gray told them, adding that because her mother’s memory was impaired, she couldn’t supply the crucial facts, like medication allergies.
By the time Ms. Gray found a nurse willing to listen, hours later, her mother had already been prescribed a drug she was allergic to. Fortunately, the staff hadn’t administered it yet.
Each scenario, attorneys say, involves a misinterpretation of the privacy rules created under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. “It’s become an all-purpose excuse for things people don’t want to talk about,” said Carol Levine, director of the United Hospital Fund’s Families and Health Care Project, which has published a Hipaa guide for family caregivers.