HIPAA Compliance and Health Privacy
Justice Department demands release of abortion records
After a group of doctors challenged the constitutionality of the federal Partial Birth Abortion
Ban Act of 2003, the Justice Department demanded through a set of subpoenas that hospitals in
several states release the medical records of many patients who had so-called partial birth
abortions, the New York Times reported today. The Justice Department is arguing that their
request does not violate federal law because "individuals no longer possess a reasonable
expectation that their histories will remain completely confidential." However, the new federal
privacy law (HIPAA) creates such an enforceable expectation of privacy by limiting certain uses
and disclosures of people's health information.
The plaintiff doctors - and hospitals - are fighting the subpoenas. Judge Charles Kocoras of
Federal District Court in Chicago ruled against the DOJ's subpoena of the women's medical
records on the grounds that releasing patient records to the government would violate HIPAA and
Illinois medical privacy law. The Washington Post reports that Judge Kocoras called the request
"'a significant intrusion' of patients' privacy that would provide 'little, if any, probative
value' to the government's case."
However, in a second challenge to the subpoenas, Judge Richard Conway Casey of Federal District
Court in Manhattan came to a contradictory decision, threatening to lift a temporary ban he had
imposed on the Act if the medical records were not released, and saying "the information
relevant to this case will be produced. Otherwise, I will entertain whatever actions the
government wishes to seek."
The department's demands for records in several other states are pending. The doctors
challenging the Act are backed by the ACLU, the National Abortion Federation, Planned
Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights.
In 2002, the Health Privacy Project weighed in on a similar controversy in Iowa. Law
enforcement officials in Iowa had demanded that Planned Parenthood and local hospitals release
the identities of all women who had a positive pregnancy test over a period of about a year. In
an op-ed, the Health Privacy Project warned that such demands "risk driving women away from
Planned Parenthood clinics, and other health care services where women expect and need
confidential care." Ultimately, Planned Parenthood prevailed in resisting the subpoena.
The Health Privacy Project is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to raising public
awareness of the importance of ensuring health privacy in order to improve health care access
and quality, both on an individual and a community level.
Support the Health Privacy Project at http://www.healthprivacy.org.