Q: I just returned home after an extended vacation. A friend in the neighborhood called to tell me my elderly next-door neighbor was removed from her home and no one has been able to find out where she is. I have known this woman for a long time and we are all concerned for her welfare. The only thing the neighbors know is someone from your agency had been out to see her. I tried calling Elder Services and was informed they could not provide me any information. Several years ago when the elder was in need of assistance I was able to speak with her case manager. What has changed? This is frustrating, all we want is to make sure she is OK. Why won’t anyone talk with us?
A: First of all I am sorry your phone call left you frustrated. Hopefully this explanation will at least give you an understanding of why our staff were unable to answer any of your questions. Whomever you spoke with was following protocol that protects personal information and although they might have wanted to relieve any concerns you voiced, they were restricted from doing so.
We have always adhered to a level of confidentiality to protect the privacy of our consumers based on federal and state laws about the sharing of information. If a neighbor, friend or a relative calls and inquires about an elder we cannot give out information or even acknowledge the individual is a consumer who is receiving assistance. We are only allowed to share this kind of information when we have written authorization from the elder.
The term for these confidentiality laws is HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. HIPAA established national standards to protect individuals’ medical records and other personal information. If you have received any medical care over the last several years you would have been asked to sign a form that outlines the medical providers HIPAA policy and what you can expect concerning the privacy of your records and information. These regulations along with Massachusetts Executive Order 504 defines the HIPAA policy and regulations that this agency follows.
We understand how frustrating it is to not to get the information you request, particularly when your request is of concern and care for someone. The law is not intended to be punitive or frustrating, but rather to try and protect everyone’s right to keeping their information private. This is of particular concern when you hear about all the data breaches in the news these days. Health care and personal care information can be misused or exploited and to avoid any of that happening, the rules in place are extremely detailed.
My suggestion would be to determine another way you might be able to get information. Is there a family member or friend of the neighbor you might call? Would you talk to the post office to see if a forwarding address was available so that you could send a note relating your concerns? I am sorry that you experienced this frustration but remember: HIPAA regulations are there to protect us.
Are you struggling caring for an older adult or having difficulty locating resources? Our experienced staff are available for no cost consultations in the home, office or community. For additional information or to schedule an appointment call 1-800-892-0890. Do you have a question? We encourage inquiries or comments from our readers. Direct correspondence to email@example.com or Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley Inc., AgeInfo Department, 280 Merrimack Street, Suite 400, Lawrence, MA 01843. Joan Hatem-Roy is the CEO of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley Inc.