Personal health information, in the wrong hands, could have disastrous consequences for an individual's future. As Jay Pomerantz points out, the wealth of information contained in the computer files of the major MBHO's could have significant value to private detectives, opposing parties in lawsuits, political opponents, and blackmailers, just to name a few (Pomerantz, 1999). For these reasons, the privacy of behavioral healthcare information is extremely important, yet many consumers are concerned that their medical records are not as secure as they should be. According to a 1993 survey conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, 27% of the public believe their personal health data (not specific to behavioral health) has been disclosed improperly, and of those, 31% said they were harmed or embarrassed by the disclosure; 15% said that the unauthorized disclosure was made by a health plan. Eleven percent said that they or a family member had paid for care out of pocket rather than submit a claim and risk having to disclose information about the condition (Louis Harris and Associates, 1993).
Unauthorized disclosures can result in harm in a variety of ways. Many people with a history of mental health or substance abuse treatment find it difficult to obtain life insurance because insurance companies share client information with the Medical Information Bureau (MIB), a membership organization of over 600 insurance companies (California Health Care Foundation and Consumers Union, 1999). When insurers are underwriting policies, they can contact the MIB to find out if the applicant has a pre-existing condition or has ever been denied coverage (Rybowski, 1998). Although the MIB requires an individual's consent before releasing information, in practice, many people do not realize that their personal information is exchanged by insurance companies in this way. Additionally, more than one third of Fortune 500 companies report checking medical records before making decisions about who to hire and promote (NMHA, 1999). Inappropriate use of health care information can have serious adverse consequences for a person's life.
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