Supreme Court Ruling: Donor Network Must Disclose Patient Details

A New York Supreme Court Judge has recently ruled that patient details recorded by the New York Organ Donor Network must be handed over to a plaintiff and that HIPAA does not give basis for denying this request.

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

The New York Organ Donor Network argues the plaintiff was fired for poor work performance while he was still a probationary member of staff. The claims about the procurement of organs have been denied.

McMahon asked the New York Organ Donor Network hand over the medical data of the four patients as they are ‘material and necessary’ to show the patients had signs of brain activity at the time their organs were harvested.  The New York Organ Donor Network had, on previous occasions, denied McMahon’s request, instead providing contact details of the patients’ next of kin, advising McMahon that he needed to receive consent forms allowing the release of the data.

McMahon argues he tried to obtain consent forms, but despite many attempts, was unable to receive the authorizations. Without access to the medical histories of patients, McMahon is unable to supply the proof related to his asserted cause of action.

McMahon claimed that the New York Organ Donor Network is not a HIPAA-covered organization and therefore would not be violating HIPAA-Rules by turning over the patients’ histories.

The New York Organ Donor Network confirmed that it is not an organization covered by HIPAA Rules, but that it has a duty to maintain patient confidentiality. The defendant also argues it has entered into memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with hospitals in which access to PHI was granted in order to facilitate the organ donation process. The New York Organ Donor Network argues “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 organization, and even if it were, HIPAA Rules do not prevent document disclosure. Bluth explained that organ procurement organizations (OPOs) are permitted 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 stated, “MOUs between [the] defendant and certain hospitals do not compel this Court to deny plaintiffs motion.”

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

Explaining the reasoning behind 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 added that HHS could have included OPOs in its definition of covered organizations but it did not.

Bluth remarked 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 release the patients’ records no later than April 26, 2017. McMahon has been denied authorization from using the information in the medical histories for anything more than litigation.

Author: Maria Perez