News Did ESPN Violate a Football Star's HIPAA Rights?

  1. Jason Pierre-Paul, star defensive end for the New York Giants, suffered serious burn damage to his hands as a result of a fireworks accident occurring during an Independence Day celebration. While Pierre-Paul refused visitors and Giants representatives at Jackson Memorial Hospital in South Florida, ESPN's Adam Schefter suddenly had the scoop concerning the extent of the injury. Schefter posted on Twitter what appeared to be a photo of an operating room schedule for the amputation of the football star’s right index finger as well as skin grafts from Pierre-Paul's right arm. In addition to questions about Schefter's Tweet being in poor taste, speculation was rampant that serious of HIPAA violations may have occurred, which are laws protecting the privacy of a patient's medical records.

    ESPN's Adam Schefter's Tweet of Pierre-Paul's Medical Records


    The controversy surrounding the fireworks tragedy was already heightened. It was readily known that Pierre-Paul had not yet signed a lucrative contract with the Giants to stay with the team for one additional year. The two time Super Bowl champion had hope to hold out to negotiate a longer term with an even more lucrative salary. Leaks about the situation were rampant but inconsistent. Speculation swirled whether the injury was as extensive as reported, with some accounts stating that the football star had blown off several fingers and others that he only suffered serious burns that were not career threatening injuries. Former Giants football star, Jesse Armstead, along with another member of the Giants organization flew down to Miami to meet Pierre-Paul but were denied entry. The door was shut tight to media inquiries. And suddenly Adam Schefter emerged with the breaking news that All-Pro defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York football Giants would lose at least one finger. The player would have surgery to amputate his right index finger down to the knuckle, as well as skin grafts from his right arm in order to save his hand.

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    Did Adam Schefter's Tweet Violate HIPAA Laws?


    The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA, protects patient confidentiality and penalizes medical care providers for disclosing a patient's information to unauthorized parties without the consent of the patient. HIPAA fines can range such as $1,000 for unintentional errors and $10,000 due to acts of willful neglect. According to the American Medical Association, HIPAA offenses "committed with the intent to sell, transfer, or use individually identifiable health information for commercial advantage, personal gain or malicious harm permit fines of $250,000, and imprisonment for up to ten years."

    The HIPAA website explains that "Covered Entities" are required to follow HIPAA laws to protect patient privacy. Covered entities include:
    • Health Plans, including health insurance companies, HMOs, company health plans, and certain government programs that pay for health care, such as Medicare and Medicaid.
    • Most Health Care Providers—those that conduct certain business electronically, such as electronically billing your health insurance—including most doctors, clinics, hospitals, psychologists, chiropractors, nursing homes, pharmacies, and dentists.
    • Health Care Clearinghouses—entities that process nonstandard health information they receive from another entity into a standard (i.e., standard electronic format or data content), or vice versa.
    There are several other medical entities that are contained with the "Covered Entities" description but the media or press who obtains the medical records of third parties is not one of them. While invasion of privacy laws may apply as well as other legal statutes, it doesn't appear that Schefter or ESPN could be charged under HIPAA laws. However, a doctor, nurse or other hospital employee who may have been responsible for the disclosure of the patient's medical records would be subject to HIPAA laws. Severe penalties and actions would be expected if any of these medical service professionals were responsible for sharing the information. But it has also been speculated that members of Jason Pierre-Paul's family, his agent or his hospital entourage may have taken the photos and disclosed them to Schefter and ESPN with the player's permission. While it's a full day after the news broke, there are currently no accusations of privacy violations coming from the football star's attorneys or representatives and Schefter's tweet is still prominently displayed in his Twitter feed.

    Other Notable Celebrity HIPAA Violations


    In 2008, UCLA Health System paid a fine of $865,000 as a result of several employees snooping into the confidential patient records of numerous celebrities, including Britney Spears, Tom Cruise and Maria Shriver. Two years later, another disgruntled employee became the first person to be sentenced to a four month federal prison for HIPAA violations. The licensed Chinese surgeon who served as a hospital researcher plead guilty to illegally snooping into celebrity patient records.
    Legal Practice:
    Health Care - HIPAA
    Jurisdiction:
    • Florida

    Michael M. Wechsler

    Michael M. Wechsler
    Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.

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