Get Hip to HIPAA!

Even if you’ve never worked in the healthcare industry, you’ve probably heard of HIPAA. An appointment to get your teeth cleaned comes complete with a slew of forms that include your rights according to HIPAA.

But can you explain what HIPAA is and why that form is necessary? We often sign and date and move on, knowing it relates vaguely to what our care provider can do with our private health information.

HIPAA includes a lot more than you may realize, and if you work with Protected Health Information (PHI), especially electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI), understanding HIPAA is crucial. This article is the first in a series discussing what HIPAA is, understanding the Privacy and Security Rules, and analyzing HIPAA compliance standards.

What Does HIPAA Stand for?

If you’re not exceptionally familiar with this acronym, you may think it stands for the Health Information Privacy and Accountability Act. That seems reasonable given how the everyday person is exposed to it. In fact, it stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

That doesn’t sound so familiar, does it? HIPAA was enacted in 1996 not with the intent to protect people’s privacy, but instead to regulate and simplify the health insurance industry. According to the official HIPAA language, the objective of this government regulation is:

To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to improve portability and continuity of health insurance coverage in the group and individual markets, to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in health insurance and health care delivery, to promote the use of medical savings accounts, to improve access to long-term care services and coverage, to simplify the administration of health insurance, and for other purposes.

Essentially, Congress wanted to make health insurance cheaper and simpler by reducing administrative costs and creating a standard method that everyone related to the health insurance industry could adopt. So where does all this privacy and security regulation come into play? The requirement “to simplify the administration of health insurance” triggered everything.

In the Administrative Simplification section of HIPAA, the Act requires that the rights of individuals relating to the use and disclosure of their health information be clearly explained and that standards are set for the electronic exchange of health information. These two subsections, privacy and safeguards, would later be addressed in what is now referred to as the Privacy Rule and the Security Rule.

The Privacy Rule

The Privacy Rule went into effect in 2000 and has been amended several times. It lays out the standards and guidelines for how PHI in all forms—verbal, physical, or electronic—can be used and disclosed. The Privacy Rule is the reason you know the acronym HIPAA at all.

Thanks to the Privacy Rule, health care providers, insurance companies, and their business partners must follow the same rules regarding health information. Individuals have the same right to access and the same expectation of privacy from all entities according to the guidelines in the Privacy Rule. PHI can include:

  • identifiable personal information,
  • any medical or mental health condition diagnosed during the lifetime of the individual,
  • any treatment or procedure performed in the lifetime of the individual,
  • payment information relating to health care,
  • and any identifiable or medical information that the individual wants restricted.

The Privacy Rule is also the reason you must sign that form stating you understand your rights according to HIPAA. Being informed that you have the right to privacy is part of your legal rights. There are exceptions to these rules, such as life-threatening emergencies, court orders, and release of information authorizations, but all are directly addressed and specified within the rule.

Ultimately, the HIPAA Privacy Rule sets the standard for each patient’s right to privacy regarding their PHI. Thanks to the Privacy Rule, PHI is automatically considered confidential in almost all circumstances, and it also explains under what circumstances PHI may be shared.

The Security Rule

The Security Rule is a little different. It first went into effect in 2003 and, unlike the Privacy Rule, relates only to ePHI. The Security Rule established the safeguard standards everyone dealing with ePHI must follow to be HIPAA compliant. Compliance means all ePHI is stored, processed, and transferred in a way that ensures patient privacy. While it doesn’t dictate specific implementation steps, since each company’s use and needs around ePHI is different, anyone dealing with ePHI must address each specification.

HIPAA began as a way to simplify health insurance procedures and make those handling health information more accountable to every citizen’s rights about their private health information, and its effects have been far-reaching. For anyone dealing with PHI, the requirements can appear daunting at first, but with a trusted IT partner, HIPAA compliance means any and all health information will be safe in your hands.

Look for our next HIPAA article, which will discuss the Security Rule in more detail. Until then, you can contact Anderson Technologies’ expert consultants for help navigating HIPAA compliance by calling 314.394.3001 or emailing info@andersontech.com.