WHAT’S A HIPAA by Dick Weinman, The Thin Edge of Dignity
Frank sits across from me at the same dining table of our ALF. Five others sit with us. They exhibit varying degrees of the debilitation that visits – and stays awhile – old people like us. Three are in wheelchairs – I’m one of them. One is nursing-home-fragile. Three are on-the-road Alzheimer’s. But Frank has always seemed “hale and hearty”; cognitive and articulate, although he wears hearing aids – like many residents of our facility.
Unlike most residents, Frank gets out – for non-medical reasons. He pursues his hobbies: he bowls once-a-a week, in a real bowling alley, not the “bean bag bowling,” held in an “activity” room, a chosen activity for us geriatric residents. He also regularly joins friends for some kind of club meeting, even wearing a jacket embossed with the emblem of the club .
At eighty-four, Frank still pursues his long time interest in bees, which he used to cultivate before an ALF became his home. The hives have been transplanted from his former home, and he leaves the ALF to raise and tend to them.
Frank is a former university professor of Veterinary Medicine, a Ph.D, and a veterinarian (DVM.) Despite the constricting life of an ALF, he continues productive activities – in the real world; that’s a rarity.
That’s why I’m mystified by his disappearance, many weeks long.
Our ALF is promoted as a “community.” Well, one of our villagers has either run away, been kidnapped, or traveled to foreign lands. Of course that’s implausible, but it is a possibility when a friend at the table is no longer there?
In trying to find out what happened to Frank, we, his left-in-the-dark table mates, face a wall of silence. It’s as if nothing has changed; no word from the nurse, no word from the administrator, and caregivers aren’t permitted divulge his whereabouts or condition. even if they knew.
So, we five table mates and friends, talk about our woes, and speculate about Frank’s. Grave illness. Hospitalization. Even death. (Although the administrator always announces when someone dies.)
It’s been especially hard for Lucille, with whom a “relationship” with Frank had formed. She’s become diffident and has sunk further into memory loss. She even disappeared, herself, quarantined in her room because of illness. Of course, none of us table mates were told anything: she told us, herself, when she returned.
Why this stone walling; this surface appearance of carrying-on as if nothing different from the norm has occurred?
The excuse – a loaded word; it’s really reason - for this veil of secrecy is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, passed by Congress in 1996. The purpose of HIPAA was to protect the confidentiality of an individual’s health information. A good thing, one would think.
But, to me, that, like other well intentioned governmental mandates causes unintentional consequences that can be absurd, burdensome, voluminous with paper work – and secrecy and rumor.
One of the comforts of getting old and slowly deteriorating, is to be open about our health issues; to thank God there are others like us, or to thank God we’re not as bad off as others.
I would like to know how Frank is. After all, he’s a friend, a table mate, and a neighbor in the ALF community.
POST SCRIPT: Good news. Frank has returned to our midst. At first he had been in the hospital, then returned; still sick, he had remained in his room. As he said, “I was out in left field.” He’s back in center field, now