Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was temporarily kicked off Twitter this week (again) for violating its policy regarding posts containing misinformation about Covid-19. It turns out that posting lies and deceptions about a raging pandemic can really irk a social media giant.
Not one to shy away from media attention, during her 12-hour Twitter timeout, Greene decided to hold a press conference in her congressional office, during which she (either purposefully or ignorantly) misstated the law when a reporter asked her, "Have you yourself gotten vaccinated?"
Life is full of complicated questions. This is not one of them. Greene knows full well if she’s received a vaccination.
Greene responded to the reporter by (falsely) stating: "Your first question is a violation of my HIPAA rights. You see with HIPAA rights, we don't have to reveal our medical records, and that also includes our vaccine records."
It’s worth exploring why one of our elected lawmakers either doesn’t understand or blatantly lies about a federal law — especially one we are all going to be talking quite a bit about over the coming months as we navigate whether or not we will have to reveal our Covid-19 vaccination status.
Greene’s misstatement about what is covered under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA, lays bare some misconceptions about our privacy rights regarding vaccination status. (She made similar comments about her vaccination status back in May when she was asked about her refusal to wear a mask on the floor of the House of Representatives.)
In her posts that got her kicked off Twitter, Greene claimed that Covid-19 is only a threat for older people and obese people. The tweets were very much keeping with Greene’s general approach to scientific information regarding the pandemic: She has been a vocal and leading opponent of things that actually keep us safe from Covid-19, like masks and vaccines.
Greene either truly does not understand what HIPAA covers (not this) or she is simply openly lying about the applicability of a federal law because she doesn’t want to say whether or not she is vaccinated.
While Greene may or may not have a legitimate misunderstanding about what type of information is covered under HIPAA, many others certainly do, which is why it’s important for us to break down the basics here.
HIPAA is a 1996 law designed, in part, to protect our privacy regarding some of our health-related information. HIPAA generally acts to prevent “health plans, health care clearinghouses” and other “health care providers” from revealing our medical information. If that sounds like a relatively narrow prohibition, that is because it is.
In terms of the problems with Greene’s response to a reporter, the reporter is not a health care provider or a member of any group covered by HIPAA. Journalists can ask about health-related information; if they were prohibited from asking such questions, it could be a violation of their First Amendment rights.
You know who else isn’t a health plan, health care clearinghouse or health care provider? Your employer. Employers get to ask their employees or prospective employees plenty of information about their health. That is why truck drivers’ employers can request information about their eyesight or require them to take a vision test, and that is why police departments can ask applicants to take physical fitness tests.
Employees can refuse to provide information, like whether or not they have received a Covid-19 vaccination, but their employers can then treat those employees differently, including, possibly, by firing them.
Outside of the employer-employee context, can your local restaurant ask for your vaccination status? The owner of the bookstore down the street? Yes and yes (subject to applicable state laws).
HIPAA doesn’t prevent you from sharing any information regarding your own health. If you want to go on television and discuss the most intimate details of your medical history, find a camera and be my guest.
If we haven’t already, many of us will be transitioning back to offices soon. One of the looming legal and political issues will be whether employers will mandate vaccines (subject to religious and medical exemptions) of their employees. These mandates would obviously require employees to provide employers with their vaccination status.
Importantly, this is not a HIPAA violation — just like it is not a HIPAA violation when a member of the press asks an elected federal representative if she received a vaccination.