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How HIPAA Protects Medical Records When Facing Federal Subpoenas

By Spodek Law Group | January 21, 2024
(Last Updated On: January 21, 2024)

How HIPAA Protects Medical Records When Facing Federal Subpoenas

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) provides federal protections for sensitive patient health information. This includes protections when medical records are subpoenaed for federal cases.

HIPAA Overview

HIPAA was passed by Congress in 1996 to establish national standards for protecting sensitive patient health information. The rules apply to health plans, healthcare providers, and healthcare clearinghouses.HIPAA established standards relating to the privacy and security of medical records. This includes limits on how health information can be used and disclosed. It also gives patients rights over their health information. Importantly, HIPAA rules do not stop the legal release of medical records when required by a court order or federal subpoena. However, there are still restrictions in place.

HIPAA Privacy Rule

The HIPAA Privacy Rule establishes national standards for protecting medical records and other personal health information. This rule applies to healthcare providers, health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, and their business associates.Under HIPAA, patients have the right to access their own medical records and request corrections if information is inaccurate or incomplete. The Privacy Rule requires patient authorization before records are shared or used for non-treatment purposes. There are some exceptions when authorization is not required, such as public health reporting requirements.

HIPAA and Subpoenas

HIPAA does not block the release of medical records in response to a valid court order or federal subpoena. However, the regulations do impose requirements for handing over protected health information.Healthcare providers and other covered entities must review subpoenas to ensure they meet the necessary requirements under HIPAA. If the subpoena is not valid, records should not be released until the issues are addressed.Even with a valid subpoena, only the minimum necessary information should be disclosed. For example, an entire medical history should not be handed over if only a specific treatment record is requested.

HIPAA Subpoena Requirements

For a subpoena to require the release of medical records under HIPAA, it must:

  • Be issued by a court or federal agency with proper jurisdiction
  • Clearly describe the protected health information required
  • Include date range limitations if applicable
  • Provide date for production of records
  • Indicate there is a judicial or administrative process for patients to object

The subpoena must also be served directly to the healthcare provider or covered entity. It cannot be used to request records about third parties not named in the order.

Limits on Medical Record Disclosures

Under HIPAA, covered entities must take reasonable steps to limit uses or disclosures of medical records. Even when a valid subpoena is issued, only relevant information should be handed over.Healthcare providers should have policies and procedures in place addressing when and how medical records can be disclosed. This includes reviewing court orders and working with legal counsel as needed before releasing any patient health information.Redaction should be used to remove unnecessary personal details from documents before disclosing records. Information not covered by the scope of the subpoena should also be withheld.

Patient Notification of Disclosures

In most cases, HIPAA requires healthcare providers to notify patients when their medical records have been legally disclosed. This allows patients to object to the release of records or take other legal action as applicable.The only exception is when law enforcement requires healthcare providers to delay notification to avoid interfering with an investigation. In those limited cases, patients must eventually still be informed their records were accessed.

Enforcement and Penalties

Complaints about potential HIPAA violations can be made to the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights. This office investigates complaints and can impose civil monetary penalties for HIPAA breaches.Penalties depend on the nature of the offense. Fines range from $100 to $50,000 per violation. Criminal charges may also apply for some egregious offenses that involve personal gain or malicious intent.

Healthcare providers facing a federal subpoena for medical records should immediately consult legal counsel. An attorney can review the subpoena to ensure it meets HIPAA’s requirements. Counsel can also advise on the process for disclosing only relevant information.In some cases, it may be appropriate for an attorney to file a motion to quash or modify the subpoena. This is particularly important if the subpoena is overly broad or seeks to disclose unnecessary patient details. Legal representation is key for ensuring compliance with federal regulations.

Conclusion

While HIPAA does not outright stop the release of medical records when validly subpoenaed, the regulations provide important federal protections. Healthcare providers must take steps to ensure only necessary information is disclosed. Consulting legal counsel is also critical when faced with demands for medical records. Following HIPAA guidelines appropriately balances patient privacy rights with legitimate legal needs for health information.

Resources

Overview of HIPAA Privacy Rule: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/index.htmlHIPAA Privacy Rule and disclosures required by law: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/disclosures-required-by-law/index.htmlHIPAA standards for privacy of medical records: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/laws-regulations/index.htmlHIPAA does not block release of medical records by subpoena: https://www.ama-assn.org/practice-management/hipaa/hipaa-privacy-rule-and-disclosures-required-lawRequirements for subpoenas under HIPAA: https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/ocr/privacy/hipaa/understanding/special/emergency/final_hipaa_guide_law_enforcement.pdfHIPAA reasonable safeguards for protecting health information: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/reasonable-safeguards/index.htmlPatient right to notification of disclosures under HIPAA: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/privacy/guidance/access/index.htmlHIPAA complaint process and penalties: https://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/filing-a-complaint/index.htmlImportance of legal counsel for HIPAA compliance: https://www.ama-assn.org/practice-management/hipaa/hipaa-violation-enforcement-requires-legal-reviewBalancing privacy rights and legal needs under HIPAA: https://www.healthit.gov/topic/privacy-security-and-hipaa/balancing-privacy-and-information-exchange-purpose-hipaaImage: “Person reading over legal documents”Video: HIPAA and Disclosure of Medical RecordsAdditional articles:What is Considered Protected Health Information Under HIPAA?When is it Permissible to Disclose Patient Information Under HIPAA?HIPAA Compliance for Subpoenas and Court Orders

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