By Janice D. Walker, Catherine L. Annas, and Tom Delbanco
Twenty years ago Sunday, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that profoundly changed health care in the United States: the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Much of the law focused on protecting insurance coverage for people who change jobs, simplifying standards for health care data, and establishing rules that protect the privacy of Americans’ health care information. But HIPAA also paved the way for better, more open communication between doctors and their patients.
Before August 21, 1996, it was a huge hassle for most people to see their medical records — if they could see them at all. A grab bag of state laws governed access to this often useful information. While some states, like Massachusetts, had passed laws that protect the right of individuals to obtain copies of their medical records, such a right was not consistent across the country. In some states, you needed to file a lawsuit to see your medical records. Others required you to show “good cause.” HIPAA basically said that every US resident, with very few exceptions, has the right to see his or her medical records.
What HIPAA didn’t do was make it easy to see them.
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