HIPAA Release as part of Estate Plan in case of Emergency

Powers of attorney are part of a well considered estate plan.  Powers of attorney, both “general” powers of attorney and health care powers of attorney, help the principal (the person who signs the powers of attorney and extends his/her authority to someone else) prepare for a time when the principal might not be able to handle his/her own affairs.  The principal might have an accident of some sort leaving him/her unconscious, or the principal might suffer from dementia late in life.  In any such instance, powers of attorney can put someone in the position to speak for the principal and make decisions when the principal can’t.

A comprehensive estate plan should also include a blanket HIPAA release.  HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 created the health information privacy requirements for providers of health care services.  HIPAA’s privacy rules prohibit health care providers from sharing patients’ private health information with anyone whom the patient has not authorized to receive such information.

Now, the agent appointed in the principal’s health care power of attorney is generally considered to be authorized to receive the principal’s private health information when the principal is deemed not able to handle his/her own affairs.  That makes sense.  We wouldn’t want a health care agent making health care decisions without knowing the principal’s health care situation.  That would be dangerous.

Some people believe that the health care agent doesn’t have the right to receive the principal’s private health information until the principal cannot speak for himself/herself.  That situation concerns me.  What if, as in my example above, the principal is unable to speak for himself/herself because of a car accident or for some other sudden reason?  That principal needs health care decisions made in an emergency.  Now, of course, emergency medical providers will provider the medical care necessary to deal with the emergency.  However, what if the principal has some non-obvious medical condition that the emergency personnel need to know?  If the agent has not been able to receive the principal’s health information, then no one might be able to warn the emergency personnel about the principal’s unusual condition.

Of course, the agent might not be available in an emergency situation because the emergency personnel will probably not be able to look for the agent (or even a health care power of attorney document) while trying to attend to the principal’s emergency.  Health care professionals won’t withhold emergency treatment while looking for the health care agent.  Emergencies don’t usually lend themselves to waiting for legal niceties.

In the aftermath of the emergency, though, medical providers will want permission from the principal or the health care agent to provide follow-on care.  This follow-on care will not be “emergency,” but it may be pressing.  Because of whatever created the need for emergency care (like a fall, an accident, or a stroke, for example,) the principal may not be able to make a decision or may not be able to communicate his/her decision on health care matters.  As a result, the agent may need to make these decisions and, in some circumstances, may need to make these health care decisions quickly.  When time is of the essence in a health care setting, I’d hate for the principal’s care to wait while the agent learns for the first time about the principal’s potentially complicated health conditions.

So, I prefer that the principal have thought ahead about the possibility of such an emergency.  I prefer that the principal have created a broad HIPAA release to allow the sharing of health information to the agent and the successor agents named in the principal’s health care power of attorney.

In addition, the principal might want to include others that might be involved with the agent at the time the principal needs care, such as the family attorney or an elder law attorney, or a member of the clergy.

Medicare, Rehab, and Observation Status

Rehab is expensive.  No surprise there.  Under the right circumstances, the person getting rehab care sees little or no cost.  Under the wrong circumstances, the person getting rehab will get stuck with the entire cost.

Just to be sure we all understand, “rehab” is rehabilitation.  An example of rehab is the effort to strengthen the legs after a knee replacement.

In our discussion today, rehab follows a hospitalization.  Most often, rehab takes place in a nursing home or in a facility similar to a nursing home that has chosen to focus on rehab services.  (There is a trend to rehab at home, relieving the insurer from the room and board cost of a care facility.)

To have Medicare or an Advantage Plan cover rehab, the patient must be admitted to a hospital for a three-day period immediately before the start of rehab.  If such a hospitalization took place and the patient has Medicare, then Medicare will usually pick up the entire bill for the first 20 days of rehab and all but $165 of the costs for any additional days (up to 100.)  The patient or supplemental insurance picks up the $165.  If the patient has an Advantage Plan, the plan’s rules will control how the costs of rehab will be handled.  (Ed. Note:  The $165 amount was inserted on 3/20/2017 after receiving new information.)

Separate from rehab, hospitals have economic pressures to control who gets “admitted” to the hospital.  If a Medicare-covered person is re-admitted to the hospital within 30 days, Medicare will penalize the hospital for the first hospitalization for not treating the patient’s malady adequately enough the first time that another hospitalization was needed.  The penalty will be a reduction in the Medicare reimbursement for the first hospital stay.

Because the risk of this payment reduction, hospitals tend not to “admit” someone on Medicare if the hospital’s staff isn’t sure that the patient can be cured.  Many chronic illnesses of older adults can’t be cured.  Perhaps they can be treated, or perhaps the symptoms can be controlled, but the illness may not be curable.  The lack of a cure creates a stronger likelihood of the need for more hospital care for the same person for the same medical needs.  This risk of more care creates a high risk of a “readmission” for the patient.  So, the hospital has a reason to look for a way to avoid admitting someone with an uncurable chronic illness or with symptoms that can’t be completely diagnosed.

Hospitals have started to use “observation status.”  Observation status takes place in the hospital in a hospital bed in a hospital room and looks just like an admission to the hospital, but it’s not an admission.  A person on observation is “outpatient” for billing purposes.  Medicare is billed via Part B rather than Part A.  Advantage Plans are billed via outpatient billing codes.  But, the patient doesn’t see a difference.

If a patient goes from observation status to rehab, the rehab will NOT be covered by Medicare.  Rehab in a nursing home or rehab center can cost $10,000 per month.  Unfortunately, someone on observation status may not know that rehab won’t be covered by Medicare or an Advantage Plan until it’s too late.

So, a person on Medicare or an Advantage Plan who is in the hospital (or the person’s loved ones) needs to advocate for full admission to the hospital.  When the patient goes into a hospital room (i.e., not in the emergency room any more,) ask if the patient is admitted or on observation status.  (Just using the terminology will get the staff’s attention.)  If not admitted, demand to know why.  Demand to know how to get fully admitted  Demand to be fully admitted.  Talk to the hospital social worker.  Talk to the nurses.  Talk to the doctors.  Talk to the patient ombudsman.  Talk to anyone necessary to get a full admission.  (It may not happen, but if you don’t try, it definitely won’t happen.)

Check again everyday.  (Status can change at any time.)

Being an advocate isn’t fun (for most people,) but it may be necessary.