Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

One of the scariest moments in my parenting journey was when I received a call that my son had been in an accident at school and was in need of medical care. He had managed to stay in a little bubble of protection while in my home but anything is possible, and preparation is key. Of course, at this time, my son was four years old and “school” was daycare. He had bumped his head on a file cabinet and received quite a gash. I rushed from work to pick him up and off to the hospital we went. I was his mom and could make it all better, which made both of us feel warm and fuzzy back in 2004. The only preparation required was that I have his insurance card to present at the emergency room and my photo identification.

Fast forward to 2018. Whether I like it or not, and whether I believe it or not, my son is now considered in the eyes of the law as an adult, fully capable of making his own decisions in every respect. Therefore, I am no longer considered to be a decision-maker when it comes to his medical care. The thought of this is terrifying, and thus, again, preparation is key. As I am now the parent of three adults, I am acutely aware of how little control their father and I have over their lives. We no longer make their meals, know all of their friends nor know their comings and goings. We are hopeful that they are making good decisions for themselves, but our real concern comes when thinking about possible emergencies when they will not be able to make decisions for themselves.

Due to privacy rights, once your child turns 18, you no longer have access to their medical information without written authorization from your child. This is due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Getting information about your child’s medical information would be as easy as accessing the information of a total stranger. Even if your child is covered under your insurance and you are the one paying the bill, you have no right to access the information and rightly so. Under certain circumstances, a medical provider can choose to disclose information to you if determined to be in the best interest of the patient, but most will hold fast to the patient’s privacy, especially if the medical provider is not the child’s primary care doctor who is familiar with the family. The same procedure holds true for University Health Services (UHS) at UMass Amherst. “By law all UHS visits and medical records are confidential. No information can be released, either verbally or in writing, unless a student sign a consent form if they are 18 years of older” See patient Rights and Responsibilities for more information.

There are two ways that your student can authorize you to receive information on his behalf, and by having these two signed legal documents, you can be sure that you can get the information you need when your student is unable to give consent – one would be a simple HIPAA Authorization form, and the other would be a Health Care Proxy in which your child has appointed you to be their Health Care Agent. While the HIPAA Authorization form authorizes information to be shared with the named individuals on the form, the Health Care Proxy gives authority to an appointed Agent or Agents to direct medical care for the student in case they are not able to authorize treatment for themselves.

Once the forms are executed, they should be scanned so that they can be easily accessed and forwarded to the appropriate parties when the time become necessary. They can be proactively sent to the University Health Services department at UMass if preferred.

Knowing that these documents have been prepared and executed can give a certain amount of peace of mind for families and caregivers alike. We live in an age of information. If we are unable to access information, we feel helpless. When having a conversation with your student about this important topic, I think it’s necessary to let them know that you’re in no way trying to spy on them and that you won’t use the forms unless there is an emergency. This age group can be particularly concerned about their privacy due to their newfound freedom in college life. Be sure to let them know that if they want, they can restrict the information you can receive so that they feel as though what they consider too private can remain their own personal business.

After having a long conversation with my son, who is an overthinker by nature, we both agreed that it would be important to have the documents in place to be sure information could be given in case of an emergency. I almost think he was a bit relieved as well, knowing that his dad and I could still be there as we always have been, just like when he was little and getting stitches for the very first time.

Remember, HIPAA is put in place to protect the privacy of every loved ones including your college student. However, planning ahead and having these important legal documents in place can give you a peace of mind and ensure you are there for your student when they might need you the most.

Amy Chisholm is the parent of a sophomore and a member of the UMass Amherst Parents Advisory Council.