The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal law that provides individual protections for everyone when it comes to their medical information. It requires that certain safeguards be used so that third parties cannot access your medical information.
HIPAA’s protections extend to anyone that might have access to your medical information, from your doctors and healthcare professionals to your employer. However, because COVID-19 has been declared a global health process and health emergency, the Secretary of Health and Human Services has the option to waive certain sanctions that would otherwise be imposed for failing to follow HIPAA’s rules.
The biggest questions that affect HIPAA in the workplace focus on what other employees should have regarding co-worker, supervisor, or even customer infections.
Disclosures about exposure and contracting COVID-19 are permitted in the workplace under certain conditions. First, your employer can (and often should) report exposure to public authorities so that they can engage in contact tracing and reach out to others who may have been exposed.
An employer can also tell medical professionals were sharing that information will decrease a serious and imminent threat to a specific person or the public in general. The employer does not have to get your permission to share your exposure information under those circumstances.
For example, imagine that you were recently exposed to COVID-19, but you have come to work following a negative test. You report your exposure to your employer, but you can isolate yourself, so continuing to work is permitted. Suppose you suddenly collapse on the floor and need medical attention while you are working. In that case, your employer is permitted to tell the emergency medical team that you were recently exposed to COVID-19 without your permission.
HIPAA guidelines do not permit your employer to announce to the rest of your co-workers nor share it with anyone at work who is not directly involved in protecting the health and safety of the workplace that you have COVID-19 or that you have been exposed to. You may want to share this information in the interest of your co-workers’ health and safety, but you are not required to do so under most circumstances.
If an employer is sharing your private medical information, you might be able to take action to stop it. Although COVID-19 has created some unique exceptions to sharing medical information, there are still protections in place that you are entitled to receive. Call our office to learn more about your rights under HIPAA in light of COVID-19.