BCC attorneys Bob Parker and Dan Gioia successfully defended a local physician in a case that is the first of its kind in the nation, interpreting the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”). HIPAA is a federal statute designed to increase patients’ access to their own medical records, while at the same time safeguarding their privacy.
In the case, BCC’s client was a local family physician who provided prenatal care to a local woman. The care included an ultrasound exam which revealed an abnormality in the fetal brain. At around the same time a New York couple began proceedings to adopt the baby, who had just been born. The natural mother signed an authorization prepared by the New York couple’s attorneys which requested that the family physician provide the adoptive parents’ attorney with records, including the records of the prenatal examination.
For a variety of reasons, the physician failed to provide the records. The New York couple went ahead anyway and finalized the adoption. Several months later, the baby began to exhibit neurological abnormalities and has since been determined to be profoundly and permanently disabled, requiring a lifetime of medical care.
The New York couple sued the family physician, contending that if he had provided the records, as he was obligated to do, they would not have finalized the adoption. BCC attorneys convinced the trial judge that the authorization did not comply with HIPAA and argued that the physician did not have a duty to provide the records since the authorization was deficient. Although the trial judge acknowledged that the deficient authorization was not among the reasons the physician failed to provide the records, nevertheless the defects in the authorization relieved the doctor of any duty to provide the records, and entered a summary judgment for the physician. The adoptive parents appealed.
In a unanimous decision issued August 13, 2012, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the position taken by BCC attorneys on behalf of the doctor, and affirmed the summary judgment. The Court’s opinion acknowledged “the great emotional and monetary harm suffered” by the New York couple. But the tragic consequences notwithstanding, the Court concluded that “[n]evertheless, we cannot find a duty in negligence when none exists.” The decision is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, interpreting HIPAA’s provisions to hold that a physician has no duty to provide records upon a patient’s authorization if the authorization does not include certain HIPAA “core elements,” or “required statements.” E. J. v. Paul Okolocha, 2012 Ind. App. LEXIS 388 (Ind. Ct. App. Aug. 13, 2012).