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Medical Red Tape Cut for Hurricane Victims

Relaxed privacy rules will help stranded loved ones get vital care

Medical Red Tape Cut for Hurricane Victims

Houston Chronicle via AP

Rescuers transfer a Hurricane Harvey victim on a back board from a boat to a pickup point.

UPDATE: This article has been revised to include information regarding Hurricane Irma.

If you have loved ones struggling to survive and get health care amid the devastation of Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma and their aftermath, the last thing you need is government red tape that could keep you from finding family members or conferring with their doctors.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has taken an important step toward making it easier for you to help family members, especially when you can’t get to them or even reach them by phone.

HHS Secretary Tom Price has given hospitals and medical providers permission to let family members know if their loved one is a patient at their facility and to talk with them about the individual's condition and care needs. 

The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires that a patient give permission for such communication. Passed in 1996, HIPAA provides data privacy and security provisions to prevent a patient’s medical information from being shared with those who shouldn’t have access to it. Medical and health professionals face stiff fines and other sanctions if they violate HIPAA rules.

But in an emergency situation like the cataclysmic storm that pounded Texas and Louisiana, and the one headed for Florida, the HHS secretary has the power to waive such penalties in the affected areas. And that’s just what Price has done.

“The HIPAA Privacy Rule allows patient information to be shared to assist in disaster relief efforts, and to assist patients in receiving the care they need,’’ the agency's bulletin on Hurricane Harvey and HIPAA explains.

Connie Zeller, director of education at the Professional Patient Advocate Institute, said the HHS action is just what loved ones and their caregivers need.

“We shouldn’t make it insurmountable for families to connect during this time,” Zeller said. In general, she added, older adults dealing with such a crisis “are much more vulnerable. And they may be disoriented.”

For example, someone with diabetes may not have his medications handy. But that individual may not think to explain this to a volunteer who is helping triage people in a large shelter like the convention center in Houston, where thousands are being cared for and housed.

The relaxation of the HIPAA privacy rules enables easy communication between a medical professional and a family member who lives hundreds or thousands of miles away. An adult child can provide vital medical details, such as the specific medicines a parent takes or what nursing facility she resides in, in case the individual has become separated from a caregiver.

Having a relative help the medical professionals with medication needs and a medical history can be critical, Zeller said, especially when computer systems are down and a patient’s medical records cannot be accessed easily.

The emergency rule also means that hurricane victims don’t have to sign the HIPAA forms the government requires providers to keep before people can receive medical care.

Even without Price’s actions, there are exceptions to HIPAA, say, when public health is at stake or the patient would be in imminent danger if medical professionals didn’t have access to the information they need.

HHS established a federal medical station at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. The American Red Cross has a web page where victims of either hurricane can list themselves as safe and family members and friends can search for the names of missing loved ones.

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