No, HIPAA was not waived in Orlando, and here’s why

(CNN)In the aftermath of the deadly shooting at Pulse, an Orlando gay bar, family and friends of wounded victims sought all the information they could about their loved ones' health. But there was mass confusion around medical privacy and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, known as HIPAA.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said Sunday that he contacted the White House to "waive" HIPAA regulations so doctors could update shooting victims' loved ones about their conditions. Some news outlets even reported that the waiver was an unusual step for the federal government but important for gay rights.
    However, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there was no "waiver" after all. It wasn't needed.


    Additionally, there are situations where authorization is not required. Those include whenever a patient may pose a public health threat, when law enforcement may need a patient's information or when a patient's information must be shared with another entity.
    "For example, HIPAA allows a doctor to release information to an insurance company to receive payment," said Craig Konnoth, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "Many teens and young adults are on their parents' health insurance plans. There are plenty of examples of young women paying for contraception out of pocket, or young adults paying for STD-related matters out of pocket, to prevent their parents from learning about this aspect of their medical needs."

    Is the LGBT community uniquely affected by HIPAA?

    HIPAA allows doctors to provide information not only to a victim's legal spouse or relative but to a "close personal friend," which often would include a long-term partner for both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

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    However, Riley points out, because HIPAA breaches could result in serious penalties, many doctors might act cautiously and disclose information only to a patient's family member or legal spouse.
    "Although there is now marriage equality in all states, many in the LGBT community may not be legally married and yet have been in very close and long-term relationships," Riley said. "But because they aren't legally recognized as family, they may not be treated as such. That means that they may not be given visitation rights or even information about how their loved one is -- even though they may in reality be much closer to the patient than family members who are given access."
    Konnoth noted that such incidents sometimes could be a result of anti-LGBT prejudice. In 2008, Janice Langbehn's partner, Lisa Pond, suddenly collapsed in Miami and was admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, but Langbehn was denied visitation and even updates.
    "Ms. Langbehn reported that a hospital worker told her that she was in an 'anti-gay city and state,' " said Konnoth, who studies medical privacy and LGBT issues. "Langbehn's story led President Obama to issue a memorandum to the Department of Health and Human Services to issue regulations prohibiting such anti-gay discrimination in 2010. This was one of the first gay-protective actions of his administration."

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