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A HIPAA Twist That Can Hurt

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By Gautham Nagesh November 5, 2009

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Today at the TechAmerica panel discussion on identity management, Rick Kam of ID Experts brought up an interesting anecdote that illustrates the importance of using precise language when crafting information security legislation. Kam said confusion over the wording of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has led to some victims of medical identity theft being locked out of their own medical records.

Here's how it typically happens: Someone steals your Social Security or insurance policy numbers and uses it to pose as you to illegally obtain medical care. Since the provider thinks the impostor is the real you, information concerning the impostor's condition and treatment is added to your medical record. Not only is this fraud, but it can also lead to misdiagnosis and significant personal harm.

But this is the scary part: Even once a breach is detected, repairing the damage is no small feat. According to Kam, some providers have interpreted the language of HIPAA to mean that the impostor's medical information also is protected against disclosure without their consent. In other words, someone can steal your identity, use it to obtain care under your name, put your personal health at risk, and you may no longer have access to your own medical records.

Dan Steinberg of Booz-Allen Hamilton said the confusion is mostly due to misinterpretation of the law. "HIPAA was not meant to replace common sense," he said. But the fact there is any confusion at all speaks to the lack of precision in the original language of the bill.

That's an important point to keep in mind when Congress is considering several pieces of information security legislation. Kam said both the Snowe-Rockefeller and Leahy bills have provisions that may produce unintended consequences for consumers and encouraged other members of the industry to provide the Hill with input on how to improve the legislation.

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