JACKSONVILLE, Fla.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--In the wake of the Orlando shooting, families waited for up to a day, not knowing whether their loved ones were alive or dead. Some – including the Mayor of Orlando -- blamed the draconian healthcare privacy law called HIPAA for the families’ hours of agony.
But HIPAA actually allows the release of limited information in such situations, according to Ann Bittinger, a Florida healthcare attorney who specializes in HIPAA. Regardless, says Bittinger, individuals can take steps now to be able to identify loved ones in the event that a terrorist attack, national emergency, or individual health condition puts them in a hospital unconscious.
Buddy Dyer, Mayor of Orlando, was quoted by an Orlando news station of saying he reached out to the White House to “see if we could get the HIPAA regulations waived.” In declaring Orlando a national emergency area, President Obama issued a Section 1135 waiver of HIPAA.
But that waiver wasn’t necessary said Bittinger, who was certified by The Florida Bar as an expert in health law.
“Hospitals don’t need to ask the president if they can release incapacitated disaster victims’ identities to family members, relatives, or friends,” said Bittinger. “HIPAA allows hospitals to release information on incapacitated individuals’ location, general condition or death.”
That information can be released to friends and family members and anyone whom the provider, in his or her reasonable judgment, thinks that the patient would want involved in his care.
“Professional judgment trumps HIPAA’s prohibition for incapacitated patients,” Bittinger said. "Hospitals should know this and be ready to act in the event of any disaster," Bittinger said.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer claimed that a hospital CEO said HIPAA prevented the hospital from identifying the Pulse nightclub victims who were at the hospital. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 prohibits covered entities like Orlando Regional Medical Center from, in most situations, releasing the identities of patients. HIPAA has a multitude of exceptions, however, which keep HIPAA attorneys busy.
Healthcare providers can use common sense, Bittinger said.
“The federal government is not going to fine an emergency room doctor or hospital for a HIPAA violation when a distraught person who is clearly the parent or partner of the patient goes to the ER asking for information,” Bittinger said.
Putting loved ones in touch with those hospitalized not only facilitates care, such as by identifying blood type or other medically-relevant information, but it also allows for religious care, such as last rites for a Catholic patient, Bittinger said.
What can you do now to help you find your loved ones in the case of an emergency? Bittinger says to make sure that items in your pocket or purse – especially your cell phone – help people to find your emergency contact.
“When you press the button on my iPhone and tell Siri to ‘Call In Case of Emergency,’ that will trigger a call to my daughter,” said Bittinger. “Everyone should have an 'In Case of Emergency' contact within their contacts on their phones so it’s easy for a healthcare provider to reach out.” This helps in single health emergencies too, like a car accident or suddenly becoming unconscious.
“Older Americans and tweens with phones should definitely have a responsible adult’s number on their phone as the ‘In Case of Emergency,' or 'ICE,'” Bittinger said. “In an emergency, apply ‘ICE.’”
Have emergency contact information in your wallet, Bittinger advised, and tell your loved ones it is in there. That way when you go to the hospital, you can show your driver’s license to the nurse and ask him or her to check the patient’s wallet for your contact information.
About Ann Bittinger: Ms. Bittinger is a healthcare attorney, providing strategic advice to healthcare providers across the nation. She offices in Jacksonville, Florida, with The Bittinger Law Firm. Ms. Bittinger is on the Board of Directors of the American Health Lawyers Association, the premier trade association for healthcare attorneys. She is a frequent lecturer and writer for national seminars and publications on health law issues. Her scholarly work was cited by The Florida Court of Appeals as authority in a May 2016 decision.