Is HIPAA an invasion of privacy? Here's how Biden's door-to-door vax campaign REALLY works

To combat hesitancy, many states have introduced lotteries, offers, and freebies as incentives for getting vaccinated


                            Is HIPAA an invasion of privacy? Here's how Biden's door-to-door vax campaign REALLY works
Joe Biden speaks during an event with the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson and Merck in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building March 10, 2021 in Washington, DC (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In a bid to get more people vaccinated, the federal government will go door-to-door, President Joe Biden announced on July 6. As most Americans have already received their shots, the government is moving to close mass vaccination sites and focus on individuals instead, the President said. That announcement got people talking, with social media furiously debating whether the campaign was legal, or if it violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as some claimed.

Anti-vaxxers have been pushing hard against any efforts to end the pandemic. Led by Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene, the pushback by anti-vaxxers has made it hard for Biden to hit his 70% target by July 4. We reported that the US Army was planning to make vaccination mandatory, following which Rep. Massie claimed on July 4 that soldiers would quit. Even some notable celebrities have spoke up against vaccines including Sam Darnold and Sasha Banks.

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To combat hesitancy, many states have introduced lotteries, offers, and freebies as incentives for getting vaccinated. However, it appears to have had little effect, as anti-vax sentiments remain strong, despite the scientific proof. That brings us to HIPAA. Is a door-to-door vax campaign a violation of the act? Here's what you need to know.

Long-term care patient Carlos Alegre receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from a nurse at Birch Patrick Skilled Nursing Facility at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center on December 21, 2020 in Chula Vista, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

How does HIPAA work?

HIPAA was enacted in 1996 as a way to protect patient confidentiality. Essentially, the law limits how insurance firms, hospitals, and other businesses can use your medical information without your consent. As the CDC's website describes it, "a major goal is to ensure that individuals’ health information is properly protected while allowing the flow of health information needed to protect the public’s health and well-being."

However, there are some cases when the privacy rule of HIPAA can be relaxed, as the CDC itself lists. These cases are called "national priority purposes", where HIPAA's Privacy Rule can be suspended without an individual’s authorization or permission. There are 12 purposes, such as public health activities, law enforcement, to prevent or lessen a serious threat to health or safety, essential government functions, and health oversight activities. 

In these cases, it is perfectly legal for your health data to be used by the government, or a healthcare provider without needing your consent. How does this tie into the vaccination program? That bit is not exactly clear at the moment. Both the President and Jen Psaki announced a community door-to-door outreach program but did not dive into details of how it would work. Until we know further, we cannot say whether the program is an actual violation of HIPAA, but it is likely the government can use one of the 12 priority purposes to progress with it. Furthermore, any program would likely require you to voluntarily disclose your vaccination status, since there is no federal database of vaccinated adults. 

Despite not knowing the picture, many have taken to social media to spread lies about the program being a violation of HIPAA, with some people misspelling it as HIPPA. That has led to others fact-checking the deniers, and trolling them for getting the abbreviation wrong.

People pose for a picture after getting COVID-19 vaccinations at Grand Central Terminal on May 12, 2021 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

'Uncle Joe is coming for ya'

One person tweeted, "They are tracking your personal vaccine status and releasing it to strangers to knock on your door How is this not a violation of HIPAA?" Another said, "Uncle Joe is coming for ya. I'd make a joke about him getting lost but this is not a joke. The government will be sending officials to your door based on your private health information? SAY WHAT?"



 



 

One person claimed, "Why is the government violating HIPPA? We didn’t request this? Government says I’ll just do what I want and you’ll like it. This is how they come for guns." Another tweeted, "Actually if they are selectively going to the doors of the unvaccinated that's highly illegal. Hippa medical records privacy act is supposed to keep all of our medical records private."



 



 

Others fought back. One person said, "I have been in healthcare compliance for 33 years. I have read the HIPAA privacy regulations countless times & so far have conducted training classes in over 30 states for more than 10,000 people on HIPAA. It is not a HIPAA violation to ask you if you've been vaccinated! PERIOD." Another person tweeted, "Here’s a quick and dirty primer for you: asking a question about someone’s medical history is never a HIPAA violation. A violation occurs when someone else discloses your health info (but not just any someone else.) Now leave me alone." Comedian Steve Hofstetter tweeted, "How many people claiming that vaccination programs violate their HIPAA rights actually know what HIPAA stands for, can spell it, or know that it has nothing to do with a hippo?"



 



 

 



 

It is important to remember that the door-to-door campaign is merely in the planning stage for now, the federal government has not confirmed if it will actually go ahead. Even if it does, the campaign is not a violation of HIPAA, as mentioned above. The effort is just one of the many ways the Biden administration is trying to get more people vaccinated because they are safe and work. Vaccines are also the only way to end the pandemic. 

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