Patient Records Must be Disclosed by Organ Procurement Organization, Rules Supreme Court Judge

A New York Supreme Court Judge has recently ruled that patient records held by the New York Organ Donor Network must be turned over to a plaintiff and that the request cannot be denied based on HIPAA.

Patrick McMahon claims he was fired from his position of Transplant Coordinator by the New York Organ Donor Network following complaints he made about organ harvesting from four patients who were still showing clear signs of life and had not been declared legally dead.

The New York Organ Donor Network maintains the plaintiff was fired for poor performance while he was still a probationary employee. The allegations about the procurement of organs have been denied.

McMahon requested the New York Organ Donor Network turn over the medical records of the four patients as they are ‘material and necessary’ to show the patients showed signs of brain activity at the time the organs were harvested.  The New York Organ Donor Network had previously denied McMahon’s request, instead providing contact details of the patients’ next of kin, informing McMahon that he needed to obtain consent forms allowing the release of the information.

McMahon claims he attempted to obtain consent forms, but despite diligent attempts, was unable to obtain the authorizations. Without access to the medical records of patients, McMahon is unable to provide the proof related to his asserted cause of action.

McMahon argued that the New York Organ Donor Network is not a HIPAA-covered entity and therefore would not be in breach of HIPAA-Rules by turning over the patients’ records.

The New York Organ Donor Network confirmed that it is not an entity covered by HIPAA Rules, but that it has a duty to maintain patient confidentiality. The defendant also pointed out it has entered into memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with hospitals in which access to PHI was gained in order to facilitate the organ donation process. The New York Organ Donor Network says “it would defeat the purpose of HIPAA if it were required to comply with plaintiffs’ requests.”

While HIPAA Rules protect the privacy of patients, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth ruled that the New York Organ Donor Network is not a HIPAA-covered entity, and even if it were, HIPAA Rules do not prevent document disclosure. Bluth explained that organ procurement organizations (OPOs) are allowed to be provided with PHI and that MOUs “seek to assure the covered entities who provide information to defendant that protected health information will be kept confidential.” However, Bluth said, “MOUs between [the] defendant and certain hospitals do not compel this Court to deny plaintiffs motion.”

Bluth said, the “defendant failed to identify a federal regulation or case law that would prevent this Court from requiring disclosure,” and ruled the documents must be turned over as requested by the plaintiff.

Explaining the ruling, Bluth said “HHS could have promulgated a rule stating that any protected health information received by an OPO from a covered entity must remain subject to HIPAA’s privacy protections as if the OPO were a covered entity; HHS did not.” Bluth also pointed out that HHS could have included OPOs in its definition of covered entities but it did not.

Bluth explained that “Providing this information might negatively impact these MOUs. But that possibility merely underscores the need for additional federal regulations addressing OPOs and their relationship with HIPAA.”

The New York Organ Donor Network must turn over the patients’ records no later than April 26, 2017. McMahon has been prohibited from using the information in the medical records for anything other than litigation.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.