Late last week, several stories began popping up on websites and social media about veterans getting letters saying the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would soon start sharing their medical records with civilian doctors.
The letter says that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) "may now communicate without your authorization your health information through health information exchanges (HIE) with non-VHA providers for them to treat you."
Yes, the VA will share all the medical information it has on you with private doctors. This may even include details on medical treatment you received while on active duty.
The letter goes on to say, "If you do not want VHA to share your health information with non-VHA providers through HIEs for your treatment and care," you need to submit a form.
To add irony to all this, you can't electronically submit the form. You need to print it out, sign it and either mail or personally deliver it to the VA.
Yes, if you want the VA to stop sharing your private medical information over the internet with civilian doctors and more groups, you need to print a form, sign it and physically deliver it to the VA.
With Whom Will the VA Share Your Information?
Public Law 115-182, better known as the VA Mission Act, says that the VA can share your medical information with health care providers who need to know your health history before caring for you. That makes sense.
But the law also allows the information to be shared with a "third party in order to recover or collect reasonable charges for care."
Basically, your VA medical records will soon become available to any civilian doctor who is part of the VA Mission Act, as well as the company who funnels payments from the VA to civilian doctors. Currently, that is TriWest Healthcare Alliance, the politically connected company that also manages Tricare payments to doctors.
Who Is Affected by This?
According to a copy of the letter Military.com received, any veteran enrolled in, or eligible to enroll in, VA health care will have their information shared. This affects pretty much every veteran who didn't get a dishonorable discharge.
It isn't specific, but the VA and Defense Department have health information sharing agreements, so your medical history from active duty may be shared as well.
Should You Worry?
To be fair, is this something you need to get upset about? That depends on your point-of-view.
Obviously, doctors need to know your health history before treating you. Do you have allergies, an underlying condition, other medical issues, etc.?
However, the law also allows sensitive protected medical information to be shared. This includes information about drug abuse, alcoholism or alcohol abuse; infection with the human immunodeficiency virus; or sickle cell anemia. Previously, release of this information required special written authorization.
Do your hometown doctor and your gossipy cousin who works as his nurse need to know you're being treated for mental health issues by the VA? Well, that's your call. But your information is protected by law; anyone who uses it improperly will be in an expensive bit of trouble. And health care professionals are pretty used to seeing all kinds of personal information on all their patients.
Also, if you remember back to your first week of basic training, you gave up a lot of rights and expectations when Uncle Sam became your boss. I'm sure, like me, you were probably told words to that effect (in much less elegant language) plenty of times while in the service. As a veteran, you're probably used to having your personal information shared many different ways and times.
Truly, this is no different than civilians who have their health information shared amongst doctors and insurance companies. The problem is that the VA sprung this information at the last minute, and you don't have to give them permission to share your details. You actually have to tell them not to share it.
When Does This Take Effect and What Should I Do?
According to the VA, all medical records will be shared by Jan. 1, 2020. If you are OK with that, there is nothing you need to do. If you don't want your information shared, you need to opt out by using VA Form 10-10164.
Again, that form needs to be mailed or physically delivered to your local VA Medical Center.
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