One of the more common issues faced by healthcare practices (and businesses generally) is how to respond to subpoenas or other requests for medical records of patients and employees. Those who receive these requests often feel compelled to respond in a timely fashion, particularly when it is an attorney subpoena or letter. Unfortunately, responses are made before fully considering critical legal and professional risks.

Consider the following examples:

  • A New Jersey physician was forced to defend his access to family medical records without consent or authorization before the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners resulting in defense costs and ultimately continuing education requirements for the physician;
  • An Illinois hospital incurred significant legal fees to defend its disclosure of medical records in connection with the plaintiff’s divorce action.
  • Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic could not convince a federal district court to dismiss a patient’s claim for invasion of privacy following the clinic’s disclosure of medical records to a grand jury in response to a subpoena. The court found the state’s patient-physician privilege more protective than HIPAA. Turk v. Oiler, No. 09-CV-381 (N.D. Ohio Feb. 1, 2010).
  • An Alabama patient’s claim that his physician impermissibly disclosed his medical records to his employer survived a motion for summary judgment because the physician made the disclosure without having received a written request, as required under state law.
  • In Wisconsin, a pharmacist was sued after disclosing an employee’s prescription history to his employer. The pharmacist’s ignorance of the states privacy laws and the employee’s attorneys false pretenses to obtain the information were not a sufficient defense. The court found the release was knowing and willful and held the pharmacist must be familiar with the technical requirements for releasing patient data.
  • A Court held another New Jersey doctor liable when he released a patient’s records to opposing counsel pursuant to an improper subpoena, even though the subpoena’s defects were of a technical nature. Again, the Court required the doctor to know the laws regarding patient privacy, specifically noting it was the doctor’s burden to consult with legal counsel to ensure the release is proper. Crescenzo v. Crane, 350 N.J. Super. 531 (App. Div. 2002), cert. den. 174 N.J. 364 (2002).

Responding to these requests often is a delicate balance between avoiding being hauled into court for non-compliance with the subpoena/request and violating patient rights, such as by responding to a subpoena that may be improper or invalid, or otherwise failing to take into account applicable federal and state requirements before releasing the records.

Some of the most common issues which must be considered are:

  1. What type of information is contained within the records requested?
  2. What statutory, regulatory or common law protections apply to some or all of the information requested, such as the patient-physician privilege?
  3. Is the authorization valid?
  4. Whether responding to the subpoena is appropriate without patient authorization or providing the patient an opportunity to object to the disclosure?
  5. Is a court order, including an order with specific findings, needed for some or all of the responsive information?
  6. Is the requesting party authorized to be acting for the individual/patient/employee?
  7. What safeguards should be taken to ensure the disclosure is made in a secure manner?
  8. Must the business keep a record/account for the disclosure?

As more and more individuals, entities and attorneys seek medical information, including through discovery in litigation, these issues will only become more prevalent. Most healthcare practices look to HIPAA as the governing law that determines the proper use and disclosure of patient data, but state laws and professional obligations also must also be considered. Under HIPAA, a covered entity generally may not use or disclose an individual’s protected health information without a written authorization or providing the individual the opportunity to agree or object. There are, however, a number of thorny exceptions, such as for requests made in the course of judicial or administrative proceedings, or disclosures to law enforcement.

Nevertheless, HIPAA generally provides that these exceptions can be trumped by more stringent state laws that prohibit uses or disclosures of PHI without certain additional protections. In fact, courts routinely look to not only generally applicable state statutory requirements, but also protections under the "common law." This fact has been highlighted in decisions from courts throughout the country, as well as decisions by state boards of medical examiners, including those summarized above. In addition to fines and penalties which can be extensive, the cost of litigation to defend these suits can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, all for “simply” responding to what appears to be a lawfully issued subpoena or request.

Medical offices, clinics and practices, in particular, need to have a comprehensive, easy to understand plan that addresses what to do when staff receive requests for patient records. The plan should anticipate the kinds of requests that are likely to be received and the acceptable responses, including approved form documents to be used, as well as a means for documenting the request, verification steps taken and the response. Of course, the plan should alert the user to situations where additional guidance might be advisable to ensure the disclosure itself is proper, as well as the method of disclosure. 

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Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.