John Hult exposes a glaring hole in HIPAA, the federal law that protects your medical privacy. The law requires your doctor to keep your medical history under wraps—not talk about your case outside of the office, not plunk your files down in front of reporters at a press conference, etc.
But Hult finds that if you're late on paying your medical bill and the hospital or clinic takes you to court for payment, all privacy bets are off:
Health care providers, health plans and health care clearing houses are barred from releasing confidential medical information, said Paul Stephens of the Privacy Rights Clearing House.
Collection agencies don’t fall under the privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA.
“Once you get into the judicial system, it would be up to the law and judge in that jurisdiction to determine what can be done with the information and how it’s handled,” Stephens said [John Hult, "Privacy Risk Rises with Push for Online Medical Records," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.06.21].
Hult says the new electronic filing system adopted by South Dakoa's courts makes it easier for curious parties to access the medical information available in court documents. But First Circuit administrator Kim Allison says we shouldn't worry:
Online records will be easier to access, but a search by name alone won’t give the public access. Those searching records online need a specific case number, which generally would require a $20 background search on either the plaintiff or defendant.
That’s one reason why Allison doubts that individual debtors should worry about their personal information being widely available.
“Realistically, no one is going to look at small claims except the parties,” Allison said [Hult, 2014.06.21].
Ms. Allison misreads public concerns about privacy. We don't protect privacy with assumptions that nobody is going to look. We protect privacy by putting up curtains. Realistically, if the information is out there, someone (private investigators, bloggers, folks with axes to grind) can get it and publish it. HIPAA says our medical information should not be subject to such risk.
Hult notes that South Dakota law already protects some confidential information in court filings, like Social Security numbers and bank account information. It would be an easy and responsible step to add medical information, like the treatments and procedures your doctor has performed for you, to that list of protected information. Legislature, add courtroom medical information protections to your 2015 to-do list.