Our Vanishing Right to Patient Privacy.

On March 20, I submitted the following letter to the Courier-Journal. Others have offered similar views and I gather that my contribution was not accepted. Since I buy my ink by the gigabyte, I have the opportunity to publish the letter anyway! Here it is.

Bullying not allowed in school.
Kentucky education Commissioner Wayne Lewis has demanded that 10 different school districts in the eastern half of the state send him records and documents for teachers who did not show up to work this legislative session. Enough teachers did so, that at least some schools had to close. The demand specifically includes doctor’s notes confirming illness. The first thought of the physician in me is that federal patient privacy law (HIPAA) prohibits the sharing of patient information except to other health professionals or entities sharing in medical care of a given patient. These protections are quite strict. Specific permission from a patient is
required to discuss matters even with a family member, or to even to disclose whether an individual is a patient or not. A note from a doctor– even without a diagnosis– conveys information simply by virtue of the physician’s practice. A note from an obstetrician might suggest a pregnancy. An individual may not wish to disclose that they are seeing a cardiologist, psychiatrist, or any other specialty that might announce a pre-existing condition. Even if Kentucky law or regulation allows Frankfort or a school district to demand a doctor’s note, it is not clear to me why federal law would not supersede state law. I will leave that to legal experts.

Given the obvious animus of the Bevin administration towards Jefferson County and its public-school system in general, and towards teachers and the teacher’s union specifically; a reasonable person might conclude that Commissioner Lewis’s demands represent an attempt to intimidate teachers for standing up for what they believe is right for their schools. The Commissioner’s more recent promise not to punish anybody if there are no further work stoppages converts a veiled threat into an operative one. Commissioner Lewis reasonably suggests that students can ill-afford to miss even one day of school when avoidable. How can one disagree? I would ask, however, what would be the response of the public if Commissioner Lewis asked for the names and the medical records of students who skipped school in order to protest for the need of gun control following the aftermath of school shootings here in Kentucky and elsewhere? I am confident that our public would be outraged! We should be outraged today. Teachers did not make the decision to travel to Frankfurt lightly. They deserve public support– indeed public protection against what is in my opinion, and that of others, an attempt to bully teachers into submission.

Peter Hasselbacher, MD
Louisville, KY
March 25, 2019