Knocking on doors to promote vaccines doesn’t violate health privacy law
CLAIM: President Joe Biden’s initiative for a door-to-door campaign to encourage vaccination for COVID-19 is a violation of the federal law that restricts the release of medical information.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Biden pitched a door-knocking campaign as a way to get vaccine information and assistance to more people, not probe Americans about whether they have been vaccinated. But even if officials or volunteers did ask people that question, it wouldn’t be a violation of federal health privacy laws, according to experts.
THE FACTS: Biden on July 6 highlighted a door-to-door initiative to spread information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines in hopes it would encourage more people to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Local officials, volunteers and private sector workers are carrying out such efforts, The Associated Press has reported.
Social media users, lawmakers and political candidates have spread misinformation about the initiative, including false claims that the campaign infringes on the federal health privacy law known as HIPAA.
“How about the government stay the heck out of our business!?” Texas Republican congressional candidate Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez wrote in a Facebook post. “What ever happened to PRIVATE health decisions? Seems like giving these door knockers our vaccination status would a HIPPA violation.”
“Coming to my door to seek personal medical info is a violation of HIPAA laws & my constitutional rights,” another Facebook user wrote.
In fact, HIPAA doesn’t block anyone from asking another person about their health status, according to Alan Meisel, law professor and bioethics expert at the University of Pittsburgh.
“HIPAA does not prevent anyone from asking anything,” Meisel told the AP in an email. “What it does is prohibit certain health care entities from revealing certain health information about patients.”
Kirk Nahra, a privacy law expert and partner at the Washington-based law firm WilmerHale, concurred.
“HIPAA simply is not relevant to this situation,” Nahra said in an email to the AP. “HIPAA prevents/limits a doctor, hospital or health insurer in how they use and disclose patient identifiable information. It doesn’t prevent anyone from asking this kind of question.”
If someone does come to your door to encourage you to get the COVID-19 vaccine, you have no obligation to tell them whether you have been vaccinated, said Kayte Spector-Bagdady, lawyer and associate director for the Center for Bioethics and Social Science in Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.
“HIPAA does not apply to public health outreach volunteers, and it doesn’t apply to information you offer to tell,” Spector-Bagdady said in an email to the AP. “If you are uncomfortable, just don’t open the door - or do and just get some information without giving any in return!”
This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.
Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536