Are Government Officials permitted the same HIPAA rights as a Citizen?

News & PR
January 8, 2024
Is Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Required to Disclose PHI?

Are Government Officials permitted HIPAA rights same as Citizens?

Recently, Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, had a forced stay in the Hospital due to a surgical event. Things got worse with Austin’s health and he ended up in the ICU. Austin’s hospital trip poses an interesting question about Government Officials’ rights under HIPAA.

Normally, a Hospital visit stays relatively private. If you want surgery and recovery to  remain private as Defense Secretary of the United States, this becomes more difficult. On January 1, 2024, Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin (For reference, today is 1/8/2024), was checked into the Intensive Care Unit at Walter Reed Hospital. On January 2nd, his Deputy was notified while on vacation that she would be assuming the Secretary’s post.On January 5th, 2024, a statement by the Pentagon to inform the House of Representatives of the Secretary’s condition was received. During this timeframe, the Secretary was able to keep his condition under wraps from President Joe Biden and even his own Deputy who assumed his position.

While One would imagine that Mr. Austin’s condition is his own Protected Health Information, for him to make public as he chooses, but part of Mr. Austin’s Job entails ready availability to tend to matters of National Security for issues up to and including nuclear war. Austin has drawn some criticism for his handling of the event, due to his Position’s importance. Roger Wicker, Top Republican for the Senate Armed Services committee said, “When one of the country’s two national command authorities is unable to perform their duties, military families, members of Congress, and the American public deserve to know the full extent of the circumstances.”

Does Mr. Austin’s Condition Require Immediate Disclosure?

HIPAA Statute §164.508, Judicial and Administrative proceedings; “PHI may be disclosed for use in judicial and administrative proceedings only when the covered entity receives a valid and specific authorization from the individual, or their legal representative, in writing, as required by HIPAA regulations.”

Or, “When a subpoena or court order requesting the disclosure of PHI is received, the covered entity shall promptly review it for compliance with HIPAA and applicable state laws.”

Mr. Austin could have disclosed his condition at any point. This is obvious. The second point presented is where grey-area exists. Since it was the patient keeping the secret, no court order or subpoena of information could have superseded Mr. Austin’s lack of availability. Noting the aforementioned, it appears Mr. Austin took the proper measures when in absentia.

Was Austin Wrong?

Austin notified his Deputy following his Hospital admission. It is the opinion of this article. Austin was within his HIPAA rights to remain private despite his high ranking Government Post. I think that since the Job never lacking someone at the helm, so to speak, this was not an urgent enough issue that required further disclosure. What do you think?  

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