“Does HIPAA Help or Hinder Patient Care and Public Safety?”

The title of this post is shown in quotation marks because it’s exactly how the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the U.S. House Committee on Labor and Commerce styled a hearing held on April 26, 2013.

The witness statements and other material submitted to the Subcommittee can be found here.

The chair of the subcommittee, Hon. Tim Murphy of the 18th District of Pennsylvania, opened the hearing with a statement noting that while HIPAA applies to all healthcare, certain of its provisions seem to work strongly against the interests of the mentally ill and those who may be harmed by the mentally ill.  He noted that sometimes, it’s not the rules themselves but rather the misunderstanding and the misapplication of the rules by physicians, hospital employees and administrators, and other healthcare providers that lead to absurd and sometimes heartbreaking outcomes. His goal for the hearing that day was “to peel away the numerous layers of misinformation surrounding HIPAA so that we can ensure patients are getting the right treatment and the public is kept safe.”

There’s no denying that the privacy and security rules of HIPAA can be daunting, and many providers default to a policy of ‘never tell anyone anything about any patient’ in the belief that it’s the only way to avoid the imposition of penalties. But the testimony provided at the hearing proved the awful results of that “default” policy.

The Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights, which has authority to enforce HIPAA, provides free online CME courses on difficult aspects of the law.  If you have traditionally taken the ‘never tell …’ approach to HIPAA compliance, you owe it to yourself and your patients to gain a more nuanced understanding of the law.