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Do HIPAA Privacy Laws Apply to the President?

donald trump in a podium

In the midst of giving an update on the President’s condition today, Dr. Sean Conley, the President’s physician, asserted that he was not at liberty to divulge information about whether his famous patient had sustained lung damage since being diagnosed with Covid-19.  According to Dr. Conley, his hands (and mouth) were tied as a result of certain health privacy laws known as HIPAA.  So what are HIPAA privacy laws and what role are they playing at this unprecedented moment in our history?

HIPAA is an acronym for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, passed by Congress in 1996.  In broad terms, the HIPAA privacy rule prevents the disclosure of “individually identifiable health information” without the patient’s consent.  This is information, including demographic data, that identifies the individual and relates to:

  • the individual’s past, present or future physical or mental health or condition,
  • the provision of health care to the individual, or
  • the past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to the individual.

 

It is clear that information about his medical condition cannot be disclosed to the public without the President’s consent.  Indeed, knowingly violating these laws can lead to both criminal and civil penalties.

Are there any exceptions within HIPAA that would allow a doctor to disclose his patient’s confidential medical information?  Of course, the patient is always free to consent to disclosure.  Even in the absence of consent, doctors are permitted, but not required, to disclose confidential medical information for certain limited “public interest” purposes.  Disclosure can be made for law enforcement purposes, for example, or where there is a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public.

Given the severity of the penalties for violating HIPAA, a prudent doctor would not even contemplate making a disclosure without the patient’s permission unless the circumstances warranting the disclosure fall squarely within one of the enumerated exceptions set out within the HIPAA statute.  There are no exceptions authorizing disclosure where the patient is the President, and there is no general “public interest” exception (though, as noted above, there are certain limited, specifically defined public interest exceptions set out within HIPAA).  For all intents and purposes, with the law as it currently stands, a doctor could not release information about the President’s condition without the patient’s consent.

What does all of this mean for any of our readers who are not the President of the United States? As part of the estate planning process, you will consider who should and should not have access to your information about your medical condition.  It is important to ensure that this list is complete.  Whether or not the patient is located at Walter Reed Medical Center, doctors will not disclose information to someone who is not on the list.In the midst of giving an update on the President’s condition today, Dr. Sean Conley, the President’s physician, asserted that he was not at liberty to divulge information about whether his famous patient had sustained lung damage since being diagnosed with Covid-19.  According to Dr. Conley, his hands (and mouth) were tied as a result of certain health privacy laws known as HIPAA.  So what are HIPAA privacy laws and what role are they playing at this unprecedented moment in our history?

HIPAA is an acronym for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, passed by Congress in 1996.  In broad terms, the HIPAA privacy rule prevents the disclosure of “individually identifiable health information” without the patient’s consent.  This is information, including demographic data, that identifies the individual and relates to:

  • the individual’s past, present or future physical or mental health or condition,
  • the provision of health care to the individual, or
  • the past, present, or future payment for the provision of health care to the individual.

 

It is clear that information about his medical condition cannot be disclosed to the public without the President’s consent.  Indeed, knowingly violating these laws can lead to both criminal and civil penalties.

Are there any exceptions within HIPAA that would allow a doctor to disclose his patient’s confidential medical information?  Of course, the patient is always free to consent to disclosure.  Even in the absence of consent, doctors are permitted, but not required, to disclose confidential medical information for certain limited “public interest” purposes.  Disclosure can be made for law enforcement purposes, for example, or where there is a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public.

Given the severity of the penalties for violating HIPAA, a prudent doctor would not even contemplate making a disclosure without the patient’s permission unless the circumstances warranting the disclosure fall squarely within one of the enumerated exceptions set out within the HIPAA statute.  There are no exceptions authorizing disclosure where the patient is the President, and there is no general “public interest” exception (though, as noted above, there are certain limited, specifically defined public interest exceptions set out within HIPAA).  For all intents and purposes, with the law as it currently stands, a doctor could not release information about the President’s condition without the patient’s consent.

What does all of this mean for any of our readers who are not the President of the United States? As part of the estate planning process, you will consider who should and should not have access to your information about your medical condition.  It is important to ensure that this list is complete.  Whether or not the patient is located at Walter Reed Medical Center, doctors will not disclose information to someone who is not on the list.

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