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Health Care Directives and HIPAA Releases

     It’s a common mistake, confusing a health care directive and a HIPAA release.  Both are necessary but they are not identical.

     First let’s look at a health care directive.  There are actually two types of directives, an instruction directive and a proxy directive, both of which are important.  An instruction directive is commonly known as a living will.  It is a set of instructions of what you would or would not want done medically.  It is typically used to express a desire of what you do or don’t want done in an “end of life” situation.

     A proxy directive, known as a health care power of attorney, is a document in writing that designates someone – your health care representative – who you wish to make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself.  That could be, for example, when you are in surgery under anesthesia.  It could also be when you are no longer mentally capable of making decisions such as in the case of advance stages of dementia.

     A HIPAA authorization, on the other hand, provides consent to medical providers and others to release medical information about you to persons whom you designate.  HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act which was passed in 1996.  One reason Congress passed the law was to provide privacy protections because of concerns that a person’s medical records and personal health information were being circulated too freely by medical providers, employers and others.

     An express written authorization, known as a HIPAA release, is required before personal medical information may be released.  Violation of this law can carry stiff financial penalties for violators, although government enforcement has been erratic at best.

     The important point to understand here is that a health care power of attorney, living will and a HIPAA authorization are each important for every adult to have.  One is not a substitute for the others.  Each has a distinct purpose.