Patient privacy still a waiting game

The deadline to introduce technology and other safeguards to protect people's health care information arrives, but few medical practices and institutions are expected to comply on time.

The deadline to set safeguards to ensure the privacy of patient information--a key regulation mandated by a 1996 federal law--went into effect on Monday.

But the number of medical institutions and physician practices meeting the deadline is likely to be paltry, according to estimates.

"Because there have been numerous extensions in the past, many physician practices are still not in compliance," said Sherry Migliore, a director of practice management at PMSCO Healthcare Consulting.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accounting Act (HIPAA) was designed to prod the health care industry into spending billions of dollars on new technologies to streamline administrative tasks, among other requirements. The law requires health care providers to give patients timely access to their medical records, calls for new privacy rules and strongly urges insurance companies and health care providers to process claims electronically using one standard.

But the massive complexity of the overhaul, coupled with lax enforcement, has led to repeated implementation delays.

Each component of the law has had a different deadline, with some being moved to later dates as the industry lobbied for more time to implement changes because of the monumental task of overhauling outdated technology. The evolving deadlines led many medical institutions to express frustration and confusion about what exactly the law calls for.

The era of governmental acquiescence to these delays may soon come to an end, although medical providers can expect enforcement to slowly go into effect. Currently, only those health care organizations that blatantly ignored HIPAA or made little effort to adhere to the deadlines will be vulnerable to penalties, according to Gartner Research.

The next big HIPAA deadline, set for in October, calls for having systems in place to conduct reimbursement of claims electronically.

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