Making an End Run to Get the Help You Need

You may have heard about the woman who died on the emergency room floor at Martin Luther King Harbor Hospital in Los Angeles: She was in great pain, writhing on the floor, yet the staff would ignore her, walk around her, step over her. Despite her obvious agony, and despite the fact that she was IN the emergency room, surrounded by medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, aids — she could not get treatment.

In desperation, her husband called 9-1-1 — his end-run attempt at getting help for his wife. He was told that since they were already in the emergency room, there was nothing more the 9-1-1 service could do for him. But his call certainly punctuated his incredible frustration, and probably the interest of the news media, too. Honestly — I think it was a brilliant idea, despite the fact that he continued to be disregarded. But bless his heart for trying. Karma will take care of those who allowed his wife to die.

A new report came out this week, too, about another ridiculous, but no less real, example of the dysfunction of our American healthcare system — one that may require an end run, too. It regards HIPAA laws (pronounced HIP-ah) which are federal laws which address privacy issues for patients. The intent of the law is to protect that privacy, and to make it a crime to share information with the wrong people.

Who are the wrong people? Anyone who is not the spouse, or a legally designated advocate for the person. The patient can see his or her own records. The spouse of the person can see those records. The parent of a child under the age of 18 can see those records. Additional providers involved in the patient’s diagnosis and treatment may see the records. But unless paperwork has been signed somewhere — NO ONE ELSE* is allowed to see those records — except:

Any organization that is involved in “health care operations.” Like: insurance companies, the government, pharmacies, the police, or others.

In theory, privacy of medical records seems like a great idea. In practice, it seems that all the hurdles are planted in front of the people who love and care about the patient, and all the paved roads are available for anyone else. *Worse yet, too many doctor’s practices translate the law incorrectly, meaning they allow access to some of the wrong people, and deny access to some of the right people.

As I mentioned before, a new report came out this week citing a loophole in the HIPAA laws — and it is frustratingly no surprise! It seems that pharmacies, who do have access to private records, can turn around and SELL (yes — profit by!!) patients’ medical records and personal information to other pharmacies. No permission is needed — they can just do it.

Bottom line — the adult child of an elderly parent needs access to her mother’s medical records to help him determine whether she needs a certain kind of treatment, but the law will not allow him access to that information when no paperwork has been signed by the mother*. Yet, if a pharmacist wants that information to help him sell more over-the-counter drugs — hey — why not? That’s just a marketing cost, like buying a mailing list.

The end run? Just like the man who dialed 9-1-1 from the emergency room to get help for his wife…. if you need to see the medical records of a loved one, and you are denied access, contact your friendly pharmacist — and maybe he can buy the records for you? You’ll have to pay him for the records, of course — but hey — don’t forget:

American healthcare is not about health and it’s not about care — it’s about money.

Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.


*In fact, according to a consumer publication from the Department of Health and Human Services regarding HIPAA laws, your records may be shared with “family, relatives, friends and others who you identify who are involved in your health or your health care bills, unless you object.” This is the point where many providers can’t seem to translate the law to make sense. They claim that “who you identify” means they need your signature to do so.

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Trisha Torrey
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