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Judge Rules Health Providers May Share Medical Information

  • April 9th, 2004

A U.S. District Court has dismissed a lawsuit accusing the Bush administration of failing to safeguard patients' privacy rights in implementing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

The Act's rules, which cover the privacy of medical records and other patient information, took effect April 15 and prohibit disclosure, without patient permission, of information for anything other than "routine use." (See ElderLawAnswers news article, "Consumer Groups Sue Over New Medical Privacy Rules," December 12, 2003.) But patients have no say about how their information is "routinely" used or shared by the health plans with a wide variety of organizations they do business with, including consultants, lawyers or drug companies.

Patients may refuse to sign a HIPAA consent form allowing such information sharing, but this option is essentially meaningless because most doctors or medical providers require patients to sign before they provide care.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit is a legal secretary who was contacted by a marketing company and quizzed about her recent experience with knee surgery. The company knew details of her surgery that she thought were between her and her doctor.

"We as plaintiffs have a right to not have the federal government grant express federal authority to third parties to release our private information to other members of the public," said James C. Pyles, an attorney for the plaintiffs, which included groups representing about 750,000 consumers and medical professionals.

But Judge Mary A. McLaughlin of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania saw things differently. In a 41-page opinion on a pretrial ruling, McLaughlin said the plaintiffs had failed to show that the regulations were enacted improperly or were unconstitutional. "Because the amended rule is not compulsory in nature, it does not affirmatively interfere with any right," McLaughlin wrote.

"What she is essentially saying is that it's OK under the Constitution for an individual's right of privacy to be determined by someone other than the individual," said Pyles. "I find that very disturbing."

Pyles said he would meet with his clients to discuss challenging the ruling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

For an article on the lawsuit in the Philadelphia Inquirer, go to: http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/8343965.htm (Free registration required and article may no longer be available.)

Local Elder Law Attorneys in Ashburn, VA

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Hale Ball Carlson Baumgartner Murphy PLC
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Last Modified: 04/09/2004

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