PHILADELPHIA — Gregg Wolfe, President/Owner of Kaplan, Leaman & Wolfe Philadelphia-based court reporting firm, was invited to testify before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on April 26, 2013, at 9 a.m., at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., at a hearing entitled, “Does HIPAA Help or Hinder Patient Care and Public Safety?” (Click on the video to see Wolfe’s entire testimony.)
Wolfe lost his son, Justin, a Temple University student, on December 19, 2012 to an accidental heroin overdose. He was only 21 years old. Justin’s Suboxone and family doctors were apprised of his heroin use. However, Wolfe and the boy’s mother were not.
HIPAA law (The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996), protects the medical records of “emancipated minors” unless explicit permission is given by the patient.
As described on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/privacy/, HIPAA law prevents parents, family members or friends from gaining access to medical information about their “emancipated minors” (which is age 16 in NJ) regardless of addiction or psychotherapy histories, unless that individual grants express verbal or written permission to their healthcare providers.
This tenet persists despite the fact that parents are now permitted to cover children under their health insurance until age 26. “Many young addicts make deliberate efforts to hide their medical records from their parents as to cover up their drug abuse,” Wolfe, a resident of Voorhees, NJ, said.
In an effort to help other parents facing similar concerns, Wolfe launched an all-out campaign to the media, President Obama, lawmakers in NJ, PA and DE, and Congress to call attention to this issue and to lobby for adding language to HIPAA that may help protect troubled young adults — and their communities — from harm.
In a July 2007 New York Times article entitled, “Keeping Patients’ Details Private, Even From Kin,“ Jane Gross reports, “HIPAA was designed to allow Americans to take their health insurance coverage with them when they changed jobs, with provisions to keep medical information confidential. But new studies have found that some healthcare providers apply HIPAA regulations over zealously, leaving family members, caretakers, public health and law enforcement authorities stymied in their efforts to get information.“
“Although a doctor may know the extent of drug abuse from blood work, urine tests, and a patient’s admittance, he/she is not permitted to share that information with parents of legally-aged, young-adult patients – even if it could save their lives,” Wolfe reported.
“I’m learning that many suburban kids are gaining access to highly addictive prescription painkillers like Percocet and Oxycontin. In many cases, the high produced from these drugs eventually leads to heroin use, which is actually much cheaper than buying the painkillers,” Wolfe added.
This story is being told across the country more and more frequently. Matt Lauer, of NBC’s “Today Show” recently interviewed the parents of the late, college grad, Richard Fee and shared a similar heartbreak:
“Firearms are certainly the assassins of many innocent U.S. lives; just watch the news on any given day. But there is an even more murderous killer threatening our young, aspiring adults –accidental drug overdosing, which has become an epidemic,” Wolfe said.
HIPAA already has exceptions for public health and safety built-in: Item #5 under “Permitted Uses and Disclosures” identifies 12 exceptions whereby protected health information can be disclosed without an individual’s consent, including Serious Threat to Health or Safety, which states: “Covered entities may disclose protected health information that they believe is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious an imminent threat to a person or the public, when such disclosure is made to someone they believe can prevent or lessen the threat (including the target of the threat).”
“I am requesting language be added to the HIPAA exceptions to avoid ambiguity for healthcare providers so that parents or legal caretakers of emancipated minors with documented drug abuse and/or mental health histories, who continue to cover the emancipated minor with health insurance, and/or continue to support the individual financially, can have access to that individual’s medical records until the age of 26,” Wolfe said.
“If I had known about my son’s heroin addiction,” Wolfe concluded, “I feel I could have prevented his death.”
Justin Wolfe is remembered lovingly by his fellow frat brothers on this YouTube.com tribute: