United States: HIPAA-Type Protections Are Not Just For Humans – When It Comes To Medical Records, Animals Have Privacy Rights, Too (Part 1)

Last Updated: July 28 2015
Article by Nancy E. Halpern, DVM, Esq. and Elizabeth G. Litten

HIPAA does not protect animals' health information – it applies to the protected health information (or PHI) of an "individual", defined as "the person who is the subject of" the PHI. However, state laws governing the confidentiality of health information also come into play and, in some cases, expand upon HIPAA's privacy protections.

Physicians, for example, must abide by state law and licensing board requirements specific to medical record maintenance and confidentiality. In most states, veterinarians, like physicians, are required by law to keep the medical records of their patients confidential, unless their client — the patient's owner — authorizes the release of the medical records, or the records are requested by the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners or as ordered by a court.

This requirement was affirmed in several legal opinions recently issued by the Texas Attorney General in response to letters sent from the Office of General Counsel of The Texas A&M University asking "whether certain information is subject to required public disclosure under the Public Information Act (the "Act"), chapter 552 of the [Texas] Government Code." Texas A&M had received at least 48 requests "for information pertaining to specified dogs and any specified protocols pertaining to the dogs at issue during a specified time period."

The requests for information came from individuals claiming to have "virtually adopted" the dogs in question, as reported by expressnews.com.

The Beagle Freedom Project, whose mission is to "rescue beagles used in animal experimentation in research laboratories," encourages people to adopt research animals virtually, even though those animals are actually already owned by various research institutions and universities across the country.

The "adopters" then demand the medical records of their "adopted" animals in letters citing the state's open public records act which sets forth requirements of various state agencies to provide requested information within a prescribed period of time.

Texas A&M has refused to provide that information, based on the opinion of the state Attorney General citing the restrictions in the Texas Veterinary Practice Act, which requires a veterinarian to maintain medical records confidentially and provides that the veterinarian can only release those records upon receipt of:

(1) a written authorization or other form of waiver executed by the client; or

(2) an appropriate court order or subpoena.

Occ. Code §801.353 (b).

As further reported in expressnews.com: "Joseph Larsen, a Houston-­based open records lawyer, said if Texas A&M owns the animals, the chapter cited in the attorney general's opinion that grants veterinarian-­client confidentiality should not apply because the veterinarians are working for the university. He said the law applies only to veterinarians who see animals that are owned by someone else."

However, nothing in the Texas Veterinary Practice Act provides such an exception.

To Be Continued...

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Authors
Nancy E. Halpern, DVM, Esq.
Elizabeth G. Litten
 
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