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GA Court of Appeals Decision Upholds Patient Health Privacy Rights
The new ruling will affect future workers' compensation decisions.

The Georgia Court of Appeals has reversed a former court ruling that forced an injured worker to authorize their physicians to talk ex parte with employers.

In 2006, Laura McRae suffered serious burnsto her esophagus when she drank a cup of lye that she mistook for her beverage in the break room of the Arby’s restaurant where she worked. McRae signed a form allowing for the release of her medical information, which was set to expire within 90 days, when she revoked it in writing or in the event of a pending hearing.

Three years later, McRae’s physician concluded that McRae had improved as much as she ever would and that she would remain 65 percent permanently impaired. McRae filed for a hearing on her total temporary disability and permanent partial disability benefits, which was rescheduled a few times and then finally set for February 2010. 

During this time, Arby’s lawyers requested that McRae’s physician meet with them ex parte, or in the interest of a third party—in this case, McRae. McRae’s physician refused to meet with the lawyers without McRae’s permission, which prompted Arby’s attorneys to petition an administrative law judge (ALJ) to either cancel her hearing or force McRae to authorize the ex partemeeting.

The ALJ agreed and took action to cancel McRae’s hearing and compel her to authorize the meeting. After two rounds of appeals, in which courts upheld the actions of the ALJ, McRae’s case reached the Georgia Court of Appeals, which disagreed with the previous rulings and reversed the ALJ’s action.

The Court of Appeals ruled that injured employees are not required to consent to ex parte meetings between their doctors and their employers, nor can their refusal to do so affect the continuation of their workers’ compensation benefits.

In its decision, the court clarified the relationship between the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patient’s health information and privacy, and Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act. The court ruled that the Privacy Rule within HIPAA applies to workers’ compensation rulings, limiting the disclosure of health information during workers’ compensation decisions to only information needed to comply with workers’ compensation laws, limited mainly to relevant medical records. 

This means that it is not within the scope of the Workers’ Compensation Act to require physicians to meet ex parte with employer lawyers to discuss “mental impressions or the knowledge residing in her mind.” The court also ruled that the Workers’ Compensation Act cannot require an injured worker to consent to an ex parte meeting between his or her physician and employer’s lawyers in order to receive continued workers’ compensation benefits, as happened when the ALJ denied McRae’s disability hearings and compelled her to authorize the ex parte meeting.

The ruling will help protect injured workers from discrimination during workers’ compensation decisions and protect their health privacy rights. If you or a loved one have been bullied into consenting to an ex parte meeting between your doctor and your employer, please contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney.

Keywords: workers' compensation and HIPAA
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