Health Information Management

Q. Our state health department mails surveys to patients about their HIV status. The exterior of the envelopes indicates that the contents pertain to HIV status. What can we do to limit or prohibit the state agency from disclosing patients' HIV status?

HIM-HIPAA Insider, October 27, 2008

A. If the state health department is a covered entity—and many are—it may not specify the patient’s condition on the exterior of an envelope. This violates the HIPAA privacy rule. Also, many states consider a patient’s HIV/AIDS status specially protected information. This designation makes many organizations subject to state privacy laws that prohibit the disclosure of specially protected health information to unauthorized individuals. This would prohibit the organization from printing “this pertains to HIV/AIDS” on the outside of envelopes sent to patients.
 
The best way to end this practice is to notify your state health department that it might be violating state and/or federal privacy laws. If this approach is unsuccessful, file a complaint with your state attorney general or governor. Also, file a privacy complaint with the OCR if your state health department is a covered entity.
 
Editor's note: Chris Apgar, president of Portland, OR-based Apgar & Associates, LLC, answered this question. This is not legal advice. Consult your attorney regarding legal matters.

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