In enacting HIPAA, Congress mandated the establishment of Federal standards for the privacy of individually identifiable health information. When it comes to personal information that moves across hospitals, doctors’ offices, insurers or third party payers, and State lines, our country has relied on a patchwork of Federal and State laws. Under the patchwork of laws existing prior to adoption of HIPAA and the Privacy Rule, personal health information could be distributed—without either notice or authorization—for reasons that had nothing to do with a patient’s medical treatment or health care reimbursement. For example, unless otherwise forbidden by State or local law, without the Privacy Rule patient information held by a health plan could, without the patient’s permission, be passed on to a lender who could then deny the patient’s application for a home mortgage or a credit card, or to an employer who could use it in personnel decisions. The Privacy Rule establishes a Federal floor of safeguards to protect the confidentiality of medical information. State laws which provide stronger privacy protections will continue to apply over and above the new Federal privacy standards.
Health care providers have a strong tradition of safeguarding private health information. However, in today’s world, the old system of paper records in locked filing cabinets is not enough. With information broadly held and transmitted electronically, the Rule provides clear standards for the protection of personal health information.