Father says HIPAA law may have contributed to son’s death

By Ali Gorman, R.N. for Action News 6, Philadelphia, PA

PHILADELPHIA – April 2, 2013 (WPVI) — If you have visited any medical center in the past 15 years, you have probably heard of the HIPAA privacy law. One local father is now urging lawmakers to change it. He says it is too strict in some cases and may have contributed to his son’s death.

In a tribute posted on YouTube, Justin Wolfe’s fraternity brothers at Temple University say he was genuine, fun-loving and caring. “Always having our backs. That is something I always appreciated and admired about him,” Ross Goodman said in the video. His father also says he was the light of his life from the very beginning. But tragically that light went dark last December.

Justin died of an accidental heroin overdose. He was 21.

His parents knew he was addicted to painkillers. He was on their insurance and so they got help for him from doctors. Wolfe says those doctors also knew Justin was snorting heroin. But due to the HIPAA privacy rule, that was kept confidential. “Myself or his mother as the caretaker for him should have been made aware of his heroin addiction and that it escalated because now it is a life-threatening situation,” Justin’s father Gregg Wolfe said. He says had he known the severity of his son’s problem, he would have made him go to an in-patient rehab center. “Every day of my life I suffer knowing there would have been or could have been something I could have done to save his life,” Wolfe said.

So now he is writing to lawmakers including President Obama. He wants an exception to the HIPAA law stating parents can have access to vital information regarding their children if they are under the age of 26 and not mentally stable or addicted to drugs.

We spoke to Robert Field, a health policy expert at Drexel’s Earle Mack School of Law. He says HIPAA can be a tough balancing act. “On the one hand we want people to feel comfortable releasing private information to their provider because otherwise the provider can’t decide on appropriate treatment,” Field said. And without that trust, a patient may not seek treatment at all. But on the other hand, he says you have cases like this where sharing information could have been helpful. Still, he says, the law must be one size fits all.

Justin’s father says he will continue the fight as he continues to mourn the loss of his firstborn son. “I miss his love. I miss his smile, his caring, his compassion, his friendship,” Wolfe said.

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  1. I think that as long as a child is covered under their parents insurance then the parents have a right to know the health issues with their child, no matter what age. This is especially true if the parents are paying for their health benefits.

  2. This is not a HIPAA issue.. this is patient to Physician confidentiality.
    You are considered an adult at 18. Its not the place of the physician to be going to parents like a “tattle tale”, when the patient is an adult.

  3. As tragic as this is, and my heart goes out to the family, at the end of the day this young man was an adult and therefore responsible for his own health. I’ve watched my brother battle with a heroin addiction for over a decade. Even if the parents had known, they may not have been able to prevent his death. We dropped my brother off at rehab many times but he didn’t stay. The parents could not have forced him to stay. I’m sure his healthcare professionals were urging him to seek rehab and counseling and he obviously refused. Privacy laws are there for a reason and like the article says, they need to be one size fits all. Too many exceptions will just create a bigger gray area and lots of problems and confusion.

    That being said, here is what I don’t understand. How do the parents know now that the doctors knew about his heroin addiction? The privacy law still applies after death. They have to get a court order to have his medical records released and this should only have been granted if there was good cause, for example a wrongful death suit, an investigation initiated by the parents in the case of a suspicious death, something like that. And court ordered releases can take time. I deal with them almost every day. I find it interesting that 4 months later, the parents know as much as they do.

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