If I disappear after this column, I’ve been detained by the HIPAA police.
You know HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act that is “commonly associated with protecting patient privacy and ensuring safeguards are implemented to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information,” according to the HIPAA Journal.
You live with respecting HIPAA if you are an obedient American. You stand behind the line so you don’t hear the name of the person ahead of you in the pharmacy. You sign all the HIPAA documents and release-of-information forms, without reading them, hoping you didn’t agree for someone to come for your first born. You sit with the door claustrophobically closed in the little doctor’s examining room so no one will suspect you have strep throat.
Well, I’m here to share two recent experiences I had that made me ask deep questions about HIPAA and when the HIPAA police are going to come for me.
The first one occurred when I was out of town and got an electronic notice about an overdue library book. I hadn’t brought my library card so I didn’t have my number to renew it online. I called — yep, phones still do that — and asked if I could renew it over the phone.
But I didn’t have my library number.
“Can you tell me which book it is so my husband can return it?” I asked.
“Oh no,” the nice librarian said. “I can’t do that over the phone because of privacy issues.”
“But I can tell you my name and my address,” I said. And phone number and social security number and birthday and anything else you want to prove I am indeed the person with the almost overdue book. I know it all, including my morning weight, except for my library card account number.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t,” she said kindly.
“But it’s my information,” I said.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. It would be a violation of your privacy,” she repeated.
“But ...,” I said before giving up. I didn’t mention it was my privacy I would be violating.
I would just eat the fine. It might have been 20 cents before I got back. Once I owed $60 for a bag of children’s books I accidentally threw away, so that sounded OK.
Luckily, my husband hacked into my library account from home and renewed it, saving us the quarter. I guess we’ll share a cell.
I never will leave home without my library card again. (I didn’t tell them I had crossed state lines with one of the library books, surely a federal crime.)
In conclusion, I love the library and want to retain my relationship, however private, with it.
A couple of weeks later I was in a medical office, one of those bastions of privacy.
I had signed in privately via a machine, at least had tried to, but the guy in line behind had to help me so he knew all my information and touched all my cards.
I knew nothing about him because of the privacy laws until ...
“Mr. Smith [not his real name],” the receptionist called across the waiting room. “Can you give me a urine sample?” She jiggled a plastic container over the desk.
“I don’t think I can. I just went,” he answered across the room.
“Not even a couple of drops?” she persisted. I think she jiggled some more, perhaps in hopes of stimulating some bladder action.
I looked down at my book (not the overdue one) and repressed the urge to say what my mother always said on road trips, “Go squeeze out a drop or two.”
“I don’t think I can. Just do all the other stuff and I’ll come back,” he said.
“I can’t change the orders,” she said. “It’s all or nothing. Can you try?”
I silently was rooting for him.
“I suppose,” he said, standing up and accepting the bottle.
“You don’t have to fill it up. Just a few drops will do,” she said.
She must know my mother.
“And you have to wash your hands out here in the hall,” she said.
Well, I’m happy to say he was able to accomplish the task and proudly handed the bottle over to her after a few minutes. I did observe him washing his hands, thankfully.
I’d see if he wanted to be my Facebook friend so I could congratulate him on following orders on demand, but I’m not supposed to know his name. That would have been a HIPAA violation.
I don’t even know my name well enough apparently to save me 20 cents when times are rough.
Well, I’m going to go wait for the HIPAA police to show up at my door. Maybe my punishment will be to sit in a doctor’s office waiting for a colonoscopy and have my name called out.
Elzey is a freelance writer for the Register & Bee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (434) 791-7991.