Your medical records are a highly personal and private set of documents, and there are many laws in place today which strive to keep these records as secure as possible. However, federal and state protections surrounding medical records often have exceptions when it comes to certain authorized individuals accessing your records, either with or without notifying you.

Our article tells you more about the laws that are in place to protect your records and whether or not government entities can access your medical records.

Understanding HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 was designed to address the sharing of medical records and protect the privacy of patients from unwanted disclosures of their records. HIPAA contains a Privacy Rule which addresses who may be eligible to access a patient’s medical records and the circumstances in which these records may be accessed, both with and without the patient’s knowledge. The Privacy Rule also contains information on how an individual’s private medical records may be used, rights to understand and control this information, and other important uses of medical information that are essential to promote public health and protect the privacy of the patient as much as possible.

There are certain covered entities that HIPAA grants general access to regarding your medical records, such as healthcare facilities and providers, pharmacies, and health plan providers. In most cases, you must grant prior authorization to the individual needing access to your medical record ahead of time, typically by signing papers or an acknowledgment that your medical records and information will be shared with certain providers or covered entities.

In some cases, covered entities may access your medical records without notifying you, but these circumstances are more rare.

It’s also important to note that HIPAA does have a Security Rule that protects information under the Privacy Rule. This rule is designed to ensure the confidentiality of all patient medical records or information that is accessed in addition to safeguarding against threats of information being accessed without authorization or leaks of private medical records. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services enforces HIPAA and follows-up on any complaints about the violation of this act.

Can the Police Access My Medical Records?

In addition to allowing covered entities such as health plan providers, healthcare facilities, and pharmacies to access your medical records, HIPAA also has a set of rules that provide circumstances in which police officers or other law enforcement officers may gain access to your medical records and information without an explicit warrant.

Circumstances where a law enforcement officer might be able to access your medical records without a warrant or notification include:

  • The information is part of a request to identify or locate a missing person, a witness to a crime, a fugitive, or a suspect in an investigation.
  • A crime has been committed on the premises of the covered entities, such as within a hospital or in a pharmacy.
  • There is a medical emergency that is connected to a crime, and law enforcement must access applicable records.

Simply put, police officers and other law enforcement professionals are legally able to access your records by believing you are a suspect or a victim of a crime.

National security and intelligence agencies, including secret services and presidential protective services, may also access medical records as needed as part of lawful investigations and intelligence activities.

Can the Government Access My Medical Records?

Between certain HIPAA rules which allow national law enforcement agencies such as the FBI to access your records and certain rules set forth by the Patriot Act. In the Patriot Act, court orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allow the FBI director to access records, including medical records, papers, and documents that are needed for an investigation to protect the general interests of the United States. However, the investigation cannot be a result of activities that a person engages in that are protected by the First Amendment.

In general, this means that the government can access your medical records without notifying you if you are the subject of an investigation that is relevant to the safety of the United States or the interest of the U.S. intelligence services.

Is It Constitutional for the Government to Access My Medical Records?

As long as the government is not accessing your medical records due to investigations or concerns over First Amendment activities, it is technically legal and constitutional for the government to access your medical records without providing you notice and without a warrant. However, there are legal challenges to both HIPAA and the Patriot underway due to a belief that the government should not have easy, warrantless access to patient medical records as it violates the Fourth Amendment of no unreasonable searches and seizures.

Both the Patriot Act and HIPAA are relatively new pieces of legislation, and as time passes they will surely be looked at with more scrutiny and updated with legal challenges and the findings of the court.

Will I Be Provided Notice if My Medical Records Are Shared?

In the case that your medical records are accessed by the government or a law enforcement professional as part of an investigation or an intelligence concern, you will not be notified. The Patriot Act even states that covered entities, such as a healthcare facility, that has turned your records over to the government must not notify the patient and is banned from doing so.

Unfortunately, HIPAA’s rules and regulations surrounding notifications when covered entities access your records are more vague and open to legal interpretation. However, you are required to be notified and provide authorization of your medical records being shared on the occasion that you visit one doctor and receive a referral to another; you will typically sign a document stating that your medical records will be shared with this new doctor, healthcare facility, or pharmacy.

Are Medical Records Public Record?

Your medical records are not public record, and they are kept as private as possible. Medical records are only accessed by covered entities and there are limited situations in which a police officer, law enforcement professional, or the government can access these records without a warrant and without you knowing.

If you perform any kind of public records search, you will not be able to view your own or others’ medical records. If you do see traces of your medical records online or in other public areas, it is almost certainly a HIPAA violation or an unauthorized leak of medical record information that needs to be met with a complaint to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

We recommend a search of your public records to make sure your medical records have not been improperly shared. If you do find they have been, you may want to meet with a legal consultant if you believe your medical information has been unlawfully accessed.

Making Sure Your Information Stays Private

Your medical records are highly important, and these documents must stay as private as possible. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act strives to protect medical records from being accessed without authorization and notice to the patient. But when you’re asking “can the government access your medical records?” it’s important to note that government entities and law enforcement professionals may be eligible to access these documents without your knowledge in certain situations.

It’s important to understand HIPAA and your rights, and to consult with a legal professional specializing in healthcare privacy laws if you believe that your medical records have been accessed unlawfully.

Categories: Health

Nicolas Desjardins

Hello everyone, I am the main writer for SIND Canada. I've been writing articles for more than 12 years and I like sharing my knowledge. I'm currently writing for many websites and newspapers. I always keep myself very informed to give you the best information. All my years as a computer scientist made me become an incredible researcher. You can contact me on our forum or by email at [email protected].