The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is an important law.
But it is not a law designed to hide pertinent information from the public, especially amid a public health crisis.
Many people don’t understand the true meaning of HIPAA.
HIPAA is a federal law, commonly referred to as the privacy rule, to “assure individuals’ health information is properly protected while allowing the flow of health information needed to provide and promote high quality healthcare and to protect the public’s health and wellbeing,” according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. It also applies only to covered entities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists have faced roadblocks due to HIPAA. Sometimes it’s true — what we want can’t be released due to this privacy law. Ninety-seven percent of the other instances, the information should be able to be released.
The law has an exception, which allows protected health information to be disclosed to public health authorities to help prevent or control diseases. There’s another exception for when releasing such information can prevent or lessen a serious threat to the public health.
Well, COVID-19 is certainly a public health threat. Shutting down the state, staying at home, social distancing and other drastic measures are surefire proof we’re in a crisis. If the word pandemic isn’t enough to declare that, the measures being taken to combat the contagious disease are proof in the pudding.
Other states are releasing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by zip code, such as Maryland, and Illinois is taking it a step further by providing zip-code specific data such as tests, positive cases and deaths. San Francisco and New York City are providing citywide breakdowns for gender, age groups and race/ethnicity.
Many jurisdictions have also released information about the prevalence of COVID-19 in individual nursing homes and long-term care facilities. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, at least some facility-specific information is available in at least 20 states. The California Department of Public Health publishes all skilled nursing facilities in the state by name, along with their counties and counts of how many confirmed cases there are among healthcare workers and residents. Similarly, South Carolina officials have provided a list of the names of facilities with confirmed cases, the facilities’ addresses and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in residents and/or staff.
The Alabama Department of Public Health is providing only cases, tests and deaths by state and county. It is providing how many cases have been in long-term care facilities and healthcare workers across the state, but that doesn’t serve the public good when the locations aren’t revealed.
Tallapoosa County had 350 confirmed cases since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as of Friday afternoon, but which city is the majority in? Are they all in our long-term care facilities? Where’s an updated number on recoveries?
These are questions residents want to know and statistics ADPH should be providing. These are not statistics that would reveal any one identity and thus violate HIPAA; these are statistics necessary for public health and safety concerns.
Thanks to local facility officials, we now have been provided with statistics for county long-term care facilities and have at least somewhat of a better picture.
We know there have been at least 217 positive cases in three of Tallapoosa County’s long-term care facilities. However, ADPH confirmed for us some residents of long-term care facilities may have different home residencies and that is where their positive test is reported within ADPH’s statistics.
Therefore, it doesn’t necessarily mean 217 of Tallapoosa County’s 350 cases are in long-term care facilities. Some of those 200-plus cases could very well be actual residents of Lee, Chambers, Coosa or any of the state’s 67 counties for that matter.
Regardless, these are helpful numbers for local residents. But if it weren’t for The Outlook seeking much of this information, how would it be provided?
Journalists need even more information to better inform the public. That’s our duty and we’re actively fighting this battle to further inform you on what’s going on locally with the coronavirus. The more information we have, the more we can help reduce the threat of COVID-19 that continues to live on.
The bottom line is more details need to be provided. We need more county- and city-specific demographics and statistics, and I’m calling on the state to give it to us.
Officials need to stop claiming things are HIPAA violations or against the law when they’re not. There are exceptions for the health and safety of citizens who, above all, have a right to know.
Santana Wood is managing editor of The Outlook. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.