Medical privacy puts boy at risk

Teresa Auch writes in the Post-Tribune:

PORTAGE — A Crisman Elementary student’s seizure went unnoticed on a school bus partly because of confusion over health privacy laws, and now his mother wants answers.

Katherine Allbritton said her son, Johnny, has epilepsy. When he started kindergarten last year, she made sure to talk with the principal and his teachers about his condition.

She even talks with them once a week to discuss any medical changes.

“Everyone at school knows how he’s doing,” she said.

His bus driver, though, didn’t know and thought he had just fallen asleep on the ride home March 3. He had actually suffered a seizure.


Pat Olson, health services director for Portage Township Schools, said the school’s hands were tied by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal law known for making health information private.

Olson said the school couldn’t share Johnny’s medical information with the driver unless his parents had given permission. However, Allbritton said she thought HIPAA applied to only doctors and had no idea she needed to give permission.

At one point, the school system did make a list of students with medical problems for the bus drivers. But the lists would get lost, which put the students’ medical privacy at risk, Olson said. Now school officials have adopted the policy of nondisclosure unless parents want it shared, and usually, most parents want it kept private, she said.

HIPAA has developed a reputation for being a confusing law. Larry Grudzien, an attorney and Valparaiso University law professor who specializes in employee benefits, said some people, usually doctors and insurance companies, can be too protective.

For instance, Grudzien said, he had trouble finding out if a doctor had sent in a claim to an insurance company because they said it was private information, even though that is not covered by HIPAA.

On the other side, some employers are too lax about giving out medical information.

Grudzien said in this case, the school probably could have shared Johnny’s information because a public policy exception allows public officials to share information when needed, such as for Johnny’s safety.

Source – Post-Tribune

Comment: This is a frustrating situation that I’ve seen time and time again: parents think that their child’s school has disseminated important health information to everyone involved with their child, but the school hasn’t — because HIPAA has supposedly tied their hands. I really reject that excuse. There is nothing that stops the district from routinely providing a notice at the beginning of each school year that includes a form for parents telling them that if they want their child’s medical condition shared with (bus drivers, etc.), they need to sign the consent form and return it. Schools routinely update their emergency contact information on every student every year. They can include a notice/form with the same update.

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