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Why does everyone want my autograph?

If you have been to a doctor, dentist, or pharmacy in the past year, you may recall being asked to sign something called a HIPAA form. At first glance, these forms may look like many of the other documents you have had to sign over the years. The forms can sometimes be confusing, especially when they are written in legal jargon. You may be left wondering-what exactly am I agreeing to here?

Simply stated, the HIPAA regulations exist to protect patient privacy. HIPAA (pronounced "hippa") stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act , which was passed by Congress in 1996 to establish nationwide privacy standards that protect patients' medical records and other health information provided to health plans, doctors, hospitals and other health care providers. These new regulations took effect on April 14, 2003.

In addition to requiring new safeguards to protect the security and confidentiality of health information, HIPAA regulations also provide patients with access to their medical records and more control over how their personal health information is used and disclosed. The regulations represent a uniform, federal level of privacy protections for consumers across the country.

Health insurers, doctors, and other health care providers must provide a notice to their patients describing how they will comply with HIPAA regulations and protect personal health information. Starting April 14, 2003, doctors, hospitals and other direct-care providers have been required to provide this HIPAA notice to their patients. The notice was provided to patients on their first visit after April 13, 2003, and is currently provided any time you go to a new health care provider. Patients are asked to sign, initial or otherwise acknowledge that they received this notice. Your signature means: "Yes, this provider notified me about how he/she will use my health information and protect my privacy."

The Northwest Regional Spinal Cord Injury System also must comply with HIPAA regulations. Many of you have been enrolled in our spinal cord injury follow-up study for 1, 5, 10 and even 20-plus years. When you first enrolled in the project, you signed consent forms to allow us to collect data on you and your spinal cord injury care. To comply with the new HIPAA regulations, we may be contacting you to read and sign one of our new HIPAA forms, if you have not already done so. The forms explain how information about you will be used and protected.

Your continued involvement in our follow-up study is very important-over the years, information from this national study has contributed to the improvement of SCI care all over the world. So please take the time to read, discuss, question and return the forms to us with your signature. The new regulations are in place for your protection.

-Norma Cole, MSW, LICSW
UW Rehabilitation Medicine