What is HIPAA and how does the law work?
As September invites people to return to the office and the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads rapidly across the country, workplaces face a series of challenges, including whether to require employees to be vaccinated. or reimpose mask mandates.
Some, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, are resisting the calls because she falsely claimed this week that the disclosure of vaccination status “is a violation of my HIPAA rights,” the federal regulation that protects information from. confidential health.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, governs the confidentiality of a patient’s health records, but it’s legal to ask Ms. Greene for her medical history. Yet his claim reflects a misperception that has spread across social media and fringe sites, as misinformation online and false claims about vaccines help fuel resistance to vaccination.
Here is an overview of the privacy protections offered by HIPAA and why they are so often misinterpreted.
What is HIPAA?
In 1996, President Bill Clinton enacted HIPAA, a broad health and privacy legislation which helped update and regulate how health insurance was sold and how personal health information was stored as electronic processing took hold.
One aspect of the law, the confidentiality rule, makes it illegal for some people and organizations, including healthcare providers, insurers, clearinghouses that store and manage healthcare data, and their business partners, to share a patient’s medical records without it. explicit patient consent. These parties deal with patient health records on a daily basis.
Does the law prohibit asking for a person’s immunization status?
The law only applies to businesses and healthcare professionals, although some people may wrongly suggest otherwise, as Ms. Greene did when suggesting that the measure offered protection similar to that of the fifth. amendment against the disclosure of personal health information.
HIPAA is extremely “narrow,” said I. Glenn Cohen, an expert in bioethics and health law at Harvard School of Law. “Whenever someone tells you, ‘HIPAA prohibits this,’ ask them to point out the part of the law or regulation that prohibits it. Often they will not be able to do it.
In addition, nothing in the law prohibits asking questions about a person’s health, whether it is vaccination status or proof that this information is correct.
Either way, some have turned to the law as a pretext to deflect such questions.
In July, North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson falsely claimed on Facebook that President Biden’s door-to-door campaign to encourage vaccination and ask if residents had been vaccinated was “illegal” under of HIPAA law.
But the law is not applicable to employers, retail stores or journalists, among others. There is no federal law preventing companies from requiring their employees to be vaccinated, although there are some exceptions if you have a disability or have a sincere religious belief.
It also does not mean that you have to disclose if you have been vaccinated. It is at your discretion to disclose.
Why is HIPAA widely misunderstood?
Long before social media and fringe news sites spread misinformation about health, like if masks work (they work) or if the coronavirus vaccine will alter your DNA (it will not be), HIPAA and its use as a catch-all excuse for privacy have often been misinterpreted.
“I often joke that even though it’s five letters, HIPAA is treated like a four-letter word,” Mr. Cohen said. Doctors, he said, have often used it as a reason not to “do something they don’t want to do, like giving a patient certain information by saying – maybe believing it but by being incorrect – “well, that would be a violation of HIPAA. . ‘”
But experts say politicians and public figures are inflicting further damage by perpetuating incorrect claims, allowing misunderstandings about HIPAA and vaccine skepticism to flourish.
“This rumor may not be specifically harmful in itself, but it is part of a narrative that is harmful,” said Tara Kirk Sell, assistant professor of health security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. “It’s mostly a problem when there is a lack of information and in that case, people don’t know what HIPAA is.”
Ms. Greene has previously spread misinformation about HIPAA and vaccines. Twitter suspended its account this week after claiming that Covid-19 was not dangerous to young and healthy people – a claim the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refuted.
“HIPAA laws are real and they do something important,” Ms. Sell said. “The misinterpretation of what this is about only adds to this storm of anti-vaccine sentiment.”