Preventive care Your Health & Wellness

HIPAA and why you need a health care proxy

Written by Diane Archer

In 1996, more than 20 years ago, Congress enacted the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which aims to safeguard people’s private health care information. While keeping people’s health care information private is important, HIPAA can keep doctors and hospitals from sharing key information with you about the people you love. HIPAA provides all the more reason everyone should have a health care proxy–someone you designate, whom you trust, who can speak for you and ensure your wishes are honored, when you cannot speak for yourself.

Without a health care proxy or power of attorney, your family has only limited rights to make health care decisions on your behalf. And, at times, doctors and other care providers don’t know about these rights or misunderstand them, preventing your family from making needed decisions. Stories abound of family members not able either to get information from the doctor about a loved one’s condition or even to provide a hospital with information about her condition because of HIPAA. HIPAA does not keep this information from being shared in many cases, but doctors and hospitals often misapply it.

For your own peace of mind, make sure you and the people you love have signed health care proxies and/or powers of attorney. (They are called “advance directives” and you can download them free here.) With a signed health care proxy or a power of attorney, you know that someone you trust can speak on your behalf if your hospitalized and unable to speak for yourself. Without a health care proxy or power of attorney, that person may not be able to help you at all.

Ideally, you should give a copy of your health care proxy to the person you have designated as your proxy as well as to your doctor. If you don’t share it with the person, make sure your health care proxy knows where to locate it in your home. It’s of no use if your proxy doesn’t know how to locate it. For more reasons why health care proxies are so important, click here.

What does HIPAA allow? HIPAA does allow doctors and other care providers to disclose a person’s health information to family members or close friends when in their professional judgment it is in the best interest of the patient. And HIPAA only applies to care providers, health insurers and health data collectors, not clubs or churches or other organizations. So an assisted living institution or nursing home can let people know about the condition of their loved one.

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