By Andy Dworkin
Staff Writer/The Oregonian
I can not confirm
Whether that man lives or dies
If you have no name
– A HIPAA Haiku, by Andy Dworkin
A new federal law called HIPAA (for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) is making life difficult for reporters who have to call a hospital, doctor, nurse, paramedic or other health worker to get information about a patient. The law limits the amount of information that any health worker who electronically transmits information (i.e. basically all health workers) can give about patients. It is especially causing trouble for people working cops shifts.
While the law is very long and complicated, here is a summary of what reporters should know:
– You must already know the patient’s name to get any information. Hospitals, etc., will generally give you a patient’s one-word condition (good, fair, serious, critical, dead) if you tell them the person’s name. They are also supposed to tell you generally where they are in the hospital (the OR, ICU, recovery, etc.) but usually don’t unless you ask them.
– If you have the name wrong, or no name, you’ll get nothing. Health folks are very scared because HIPAA violations have big penalties (fines up to $50,000 and criminal charges). So they won’t say, “Oh, it’s Melanie Johns, not Melanie Johnson.” They also will no longer identify or give information based just on descriptions, such as “the 60-year-old man who had his leg ripped off by pit bulls in Downtown Portland.” You have to know the name.
– Therefore, try to get and double-check the patient’s name before you call. If it’s a cops story, get it from them, with spelling and as much other information as possible (age, home town, etc.). That way you can check against public records and see if the spelling seems right – and if it’s not use other info. to trackdown the name.
– Even if you know the name, you may get nothing. The law lets patients “opt out” of information. If a patient opts out, the health provider probably won’t tell you anything – including whether the person is even a patient there or not.
– The flip side is that patients can agree to release as much information as they want. They also can sign forms giving doctors, nurses, hospitals, etc. permission to release information about them and their care. Hospital PR people are usually willing to ask patients to talk to the media, and sign a form, but that takes time. If the PR people don’t want to ask, remind them that it is their job to ask, and they can’t refuse for the patient – only the patient can agree to give or withhold information.
– The obvious problem is that patients can’t always discuss federal health privacy law, especially those we encounter on cops shifts. They may be unconscious, in shock or otherwise not discussing privacy laws. Generally, if the patient hasn’t said anything, hospitals are interpreting it to mean they haven’t “opted out,” and will give condition information if you have their name. But they may decide to give nothing.
In this situation, you have a few arguments. A doctor can release information if it’s in the best interests of the patient. You can try getting to the doctor and pointing out that we’re going to be writing about the person anyway, and it is certainly in their best interest to have friends, family, coworkers and neighbors that read the story know that they are not dead, but just in serious but stable condition (or whatever).
Also, a person can choose a representative to speak for them for HIPAA purposes. Sometimes, representatives make care decisions for patients, too – such as parents for children, spouses of people in comas, etc. Those people also can make HIPAA decisions for you.
– If you get too much run-around from PR people, or think they are misinterpreting the law, you can ask to speak to the privacy officer. Every hospital has one, and they are the higher HIPAA authority.
– Finally, we encourage reporters to note for readers why they are not getting information they expect to get. For instance, “hospital officials refused to release information about the victim, citing federal privacy laws.”