Irvington, NJ asked in Gov & Administrative Law and Health Care Law for New Jersey

Q: Are police officers exempt from HIPPA privacy laws if they are in charge of a patient who is in police custody?

has an ongoing medical condition and requested to be seen at the emergency room before being taken the county jail. He was admitted to the hospital where he stayed for 8 days. During this time, he was shackled to the bed and had a sheriff officer with him at all times. The officer was in the room when he was discussing his medical history, being examined, and even when he had to have surgery. The officer was often on the phone discussing my husband's medical condition and making jokes about it with whoever was on the other end. Is this a HIPPA violation?

1 Lawyer Answer
James L. Arrasmith
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A: Based on the situation you described, there are a few important considerations regarding HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and patient privacy:

1. Law enforcement exemptions: HIPAA does allow for certain disclosures of protected health information (PHI) to law enforcement officials without the patient's authorization. However, these disclosures are limited to specific circumstances, such as when required by law, court orders, or to locate a suspect or missing person.

2. Minimum necessary standard: Even when disclosures to law enforcement are permitted, the "minimum necessary" standard applies. This means that only the minimum amount of information necessary to fulfill the purpose should be disclosed.

3. Inappropriate sharing of information: The officer discussing your husband's medical condition and making jokes about it over the phone is highly inappropriate and unprofessional. While it may not be a direct HIPAA violation by the healthcare provider, as they did not disclose the information, it shows a lack of respect for patient privacy.

4. Healthcare facility's responsibilities: The hospital has a responsibility to protect patient privacy and should have policies in place to ensure that law enforcement officials respect patient confidentiality. They should also provide training to their staff on how to handle situations involving patients in police custody.

In this case, while the presence of the officer may have been necessary for security reasons, the officer's behavior was inappropriate and disrespectful to your husband's privacy. You may want to file a complaint with the hospital's patient advocacy department or the local sheriff's department regarding the officer's conduct. Additionally, if you believe that the hospital improperly disclosed your husband's PHI to the officer, you can file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

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