Lifestyle

Does HIPAA Protect People From Being Asked About Vaccines?

close-up of a vaccine card being handed from one person to another

Photo: Nathan Howard (Getty Images)

The law known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, is hugely misunderstood. (For one thing, it’s spelled HIPAA and not HIPPA.) The latest people to misunderstand it are those who claim it’s illegal to ask them whether they’re vaccinated. Sorry, that’s not how the law works. That’s not how any of this works.

HIPAA states that patients (that’s you) may access your health records, and that “covered entities” such as your hospital or health insurance company cannot share your health records without your consent.

Schools, employers, law enforcement agencies, businesses, concert venues, and random people on the street are not bound by HIPAA. If your cousin knows that you’re pregnant and tells your aunt without your consent, that’s not a HIPAA violation. It’s just rude.

If somebody wants to know if you’re vaccinated, it’s not a HIPAA violation to ask. HIPAA also says nothing about whether or how you answer. It’s a medical records law, and irrelevant to the conversation.

HIPAA also does not apply to conversations about whether you have another reason not to wear a mask, if you are in a place that requires it. And in fact, if you are asking to enter a store maskless as an accommodation for a disability, the people at the store may indeed ask you for documentation of your disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act applies here, not HIPAA.

All that said, you should still not hassle people who you believe to have health problems, or who you believe are making up their health problems, about their masking or vaccination status. Plenty of disabled people have had enough of others questioning their status, and I can’t blame them.

This post was originally published in July of 2020 with the headline “HIPAA Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Ask People Why They Aren’t Wearing a Mask.” It was updated on May 18, 2021 to also discuss conversations about vaccination status.


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