Public health officials still hiding behind HIPAA

With public schools in many states either reopened or ready to become so within the next few weeks, it is virtually inevitable that there will be COVID-19 outbreaks in some classrooms. That will result in calls to school officials from worried parents and guardians.

“Sorry,” many of them will be told. “We can’t give you any details. HIPAA, you understand.”

HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal law that, among other things, severely restricts the release of information about health care patients. The idea was to protect their privacy.

Public health officials often use HIPAA as an excuse for refusing to provide communities with information that could prevent the spread of disease, however. During the COVID-19 epidemic, the phenomenon has been particularly noticeable. In some states, officials have refused to release even general information about fatalities other than how many occurred and in what counties.

Obviously, information on roughly where COVID-19 patients live, how old they are and how they contracted the virus could help the public stay safe. No dice, say many public health officials — though it needs to be noted many of the more responsible ones have begun revealing a few details.

It is easy to understand why officials would be reluctant to tell a parent whether the COVID-19 case in a school was in a particular classroom. That could be taken as a violation of the HIPAA statute — by overzealous federal agencies or private attorneys eager to profit from lawsuits.

At some point, common sense needs to prevail. Parents have a right to know whether there has been a COVID-19 case in the classroom next to their child’s. Let us hope educators can find ways to skirt the HIPAA law to provide such information.

Meanwhile, Congress needs to reconsider HIPAA, at least with guidelines making it clear that some public health officials’ refusal to provide critical information is not due to true privacy concerns but, rather, because of a desire for the power that can go with secrecy.


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