As September beckons folks again to the workplace and the extremely infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads quickly throughout the nation, workplaces are navigating a variety of challenges, together with whether or not to require workers to be vaccinated or to reimpose masks mandates.
Some, together with Consultant Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, are resisting these calls, as she falsely claimed this week that disclosing vaccination standing “was a violation of my HIPAA rights,” the federal regulation that protects confidential well being data.
The Well being Insurance coverage Portability and Accountability Act, often known as HIPAA, governs the privateness of a affected person’s well being information, however it’s authorized to ask Ms. Greene about her medical historical past. Nonetheless, her assertion displays a misperception that has unfold throughout social media and fringe websites as on-line misinformation and misstatements about vaccines assist gasoline a resistance to being inoculated.
Right here’s a have a look at what privateness protections HIPAA gives and why it’s so regularly misinterpreted.
In 1996, President Invoice Clinton signed into legislation HIPAA, a broad piece of well being and privateness laws that helped replace and regulate how medical health insurance was offered and the way private medical data was saved as digital processing took maintain.
One facet of the legislation, the privacy rule, makes it illegal for certain people and organizations, including health care providers, insurers, clearinghouses that store and manage health data and their business associates, to share a patient’s medical records without the patient’s explicit consent. Those parties handle patient health records on a daily basis.
Does the law make it illegal to ask a person’s vaccination status?
No. The law applies only to companies and professionals in the health care field, although some people may incorrectly imply otherwise, as Ms. Greene did in suggesting that the measure offered Fifth Amendment-like protection against revealing personal health information.
HIPAA is extremely “narrow,” said I. Glenn Cohen, an expert on bioethics and health law with the Harvard School of Law. “Whenever anyone says to you ‘HIPAA prohibits that,’ ask them to point to the portion of the statute or regulation that prohibits it. They often won’t be able to do so.”
Moreover, nothing in the law prohibits asking about someone’s health, be it vaccination status or proof that such information is accurate.
Regardless, some have turned to the law as a pretext to deflect those questions, even though HIPAA is not applicable to employers, retail stores or journalists, among other parties.
In July, the lieutenant governor of North Carolina, Mark Robinson, falsely claimed on Facebook that President Biden’s door-to-door campaign to encourage vaccination and asking whether residents have been inoculated were “illegal” under HIPAA.
It is at your discretion to disclose whether you have been vaccinated. No federal law prevents companies from requiring their employees to be vaccinated, though there are certain exceptions if you have a disability or a sincerely held religious belief.
Why is HIPAA widely misunderstood?
Long before social media and fringe news sites disseminated harmful health misinformation, like whether masks work (they do) or whether the coronavirus vaccine will alter your DNA (it won’t), HIPAA and its use as a catchall excuse for privacy have often lent themselves to misinterpretation.
“I often joke that even though it is five letters, HIPAA is treated as a four-letter word,” Mr. Cohen said. Physicians, he said, have often used it as a reason not “to do something they don’t want to do, like providing a patient certain information by saying — perhaps believing it but being incorrect — ‘well, that would be a HIPAA violation.’”
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But experts say politicians and public figures inflict further damage in perpetuating incorrect claims, allowing misunderstandings about HIPAA and vaccine skepticism to flourish.
“This rumor might not be specifically harmful in itself, but it’s part of a narrative that is harmful,” said Tara Kirk Sell, an assistant professor of health security at Johns Hopkins’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It is especially a problem when there’s an information void and in this case, it’s that people don’t know what HIPAA is.”
Ms. Greene has previously spread misinformation about HIPAA and about vaccines. Twitter suspended her account this week after she asserted that Covid-19 was not dangerous to young, healthy people — a claim that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has disproved.
“The HIPAA laws are real and they do something important,” Ms. Sell said. “The misinterpretation of what it’s all about just adds to this firestorm of anti-vaccine sentiment.”