Part 3: Uses and Disclosures (FAQ 58 of 65)
58. Do I Have a Say in Any Disclosures? (Facility Directories and Caregivers)
Yes, but only in a few circumstances.
First, if you are in a facility (e.g., an inpatient in a hospital), the facility can disclose basic information about your presence, location, and general condition through a facility directory. One limitation is that the facility can't reveal information that discloses specific medical information about you (e.g., you are an inpatient on the psychiatric floor or are in a kidney dialysis unit).
The idea behind facility directory disclosures is that if someone comes to visit you or sends flowers, the hospital can say that you are there and, perhaps, where you are. The hospital may disclose your religious affiliation, but only to a member of the clergy.
You have a right to object to facility directory disclosures. The covered entity must offer you an opportunity to object to the inclusion of your information in a facility directory. If because of incapacity or emergency treatment, you weren't offered the chance to object, the hospital can make still limited disclosures in emergency circumstances. For example, if you are unconscious, the emergency room can tell your spouse where you are. That seems perfectly reasonable.
Second, HIPAA has a complex set of rules governing disclosures to caregivers. A caregiver can be your next of kin, other family member, or another person involved in your care (e.g., a roommate). The HIPAA rule allows disclosure of information relevant to the caregiver's involvement in your care. A covered entity can make a disclosure to locate a family member or other caregiver.
If you (the patient) are present at the time of a disclosure to a caregiver, the covered entity can seek your agreement, offer you an opportunity to object, or reasonably infer from the circumstances that you do not object. Essentially, the rule specifically allows the exercise of professional judgment for the types of disclosures that have long been made to caregivers.
If a patient is not present or is incapacitated at the time of disclosure, the covered entity may exercise professional judgment and make disclosures directly relevant to a caregiver's responsibility. Thus, the rule allows your spouse to pick up your prescription at the pharmacy without written consent from you.
Another provision addresses disclosures for disaster relief purposes. An example is disclosure to the Red Cross following a hurricane. The disaster relief provision, after a bit of confusion, allowed appropriate disclosures during and after Hurricane Katrina.
Third, a covered entity can use or disclose information for its own fundraising purposes. The allowable fundraising disclosures are limited to dates of care and demographic information. You have the right to object to these disclosures, and you must be notified of the right in any solicitation. A hospital can call you on the telephone asking for a contribution. However, if you object to the use of your information for fundraising, the hospital can still demand that you object in writing. That strikes us as a bit unbalanced. You should be able to object while on the telephone, and the objection should be valid.
Fourth, you have the right to authorize the disclosure of your health records to anyone you like. The HIPAA rule sets standards for authorization forms, and if a form does not meet HIPAA standards, then the form does not constitute patient authorization. We are not going to bore you with the technical requirements for authorization forms. We discuss the strategy for authorizations later. (See FAQs 62-64.)
When might a patient authorize disclosure? You might authorize disclosure if you are applying for life or disability insurance. You might authorize your doctor to send information to your employer or to a school to explain an absence. You could authorize your doctor to disclose your records to your lawyer, a family member, or a researcher. You might want records disclosed to support a disability claim made with the Social Security Administration. It is also possible that you might even want to share your records with the police under some circumstances (perhaps to clear you of suspicion).
For the most part, however, HIPAA has defined the range of non-consensual uses and disclosures to include nearly every possible disclosure that is either necessary or convenient for the health care system to operate or for the government to carry out its many functions. After all, the HIPAA rule was written by the Department of Health and Human Services, one of the biggest users of health records in the country. The first thing that HHS did in writing the rule was to take care of its own interests in obtaining access to records.