The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which is also known as “HIPAA”, is a body of laws enacted by Congress in 1996 which are designed to uphold and protect the transmission, confidentiality and privacy of our medical records and other related healthcare information (known collectively as Protected Health Information). No one can peruse your confidential files without your explicit approval. Those found violating this federal mandate are subject to fines, jail time, or both. The maximum penalty for flagrant disregard of this legislation is one million dollars and up to 10 years in federal prison. This governmental safeguard shields every U. S. citizen—including tabloid celebrities such as Charlie Sheen.

Mr. Sheen was having a dental procedure performed recently, and his healthcare records/privacy became compromised. A dental assistant who worked there told her son that Mr. Sheen was going to be at her dental office on a particular date and time—which is a flagrant violation of HIPAA’s privacy protections. Instead of facing potential financial liability and incarceration, her boss simply fired her. In retaliation, this dental assistant leveled charges against Mr. Sheen saying that he had gone mad, “pulled out a knife,” and destroyed her workplace due to a violent reaction to nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas).   Sheen’s dentist/oral surgeon denied the allegations when questioned by the Los Angeles Police Department. In his professional opinion, the star’s reaction was a consequence of the anesthetic being mixed with prescription pain medication that Charlie was taking. In all likelihood, no charges will be filed against Mr. Sheen.

This case underscores the value of HIPAA. It upholds (and has the power to enforce) national standards in protecting the medical records of all Americans. In addition, it sets limits and conditions upon which disclosures of one kind or another can be made. Originally developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, these standards provide patients with access to their medical records and are legally protected to have more control over how their personal health information is used and disclosed.

As of March 2013, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Resources (HHS) has investigated over 19,306 cases that have been resolved by requiring changes in privacy practice or by corrective action. If noncompliance is determined by HHS, entities must apply corrective measures. Complaints have been investigated against many different types of businesses such as national pharmacy chains, major health care centers, insurance groups, hospital chains and other small providers.