Monday, August 21, 2006
Health Provider Has Broad Right to Share Patient Data With Counsel—C.A.
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
Health care providers may make wholesale disclosures of medical information to their attorneys regarding patients threatening malpractice claims, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.
In a July 25 opinion, certified Friday for publication, Div. Two affirmed Alameda Superior Court Judge Steven Brick’s dismissal of a suit by California Consumer Health Care Council against Kaiser Foundation Health Plan.
CCHCC, a San Francisco-based health care consumer advocacy group, sued Kaiser in 2004 on behalf of the general public, alleging that Kaiser’s handling of patient information violated the Confidentiality of Medical Information Act and the patients’ state constitutional rights to privacy.
Bringing its action under the Unfair Competition Law, CCHCC sought to enjoin Kaiser’s practice of transmitting allegedly “irrelevant” medical information concerning patients who were making or contemplating making medical malpractice claims against Kaiser.
Brick sustained Kaiser’s demurrer without leave to amend, ruling that Kaiser’s challenged practices were not unlawful under the UCL because they did not violate the confidentiality act or the state Constitution.
Agreeing, the appellate court held Kaiser’s disclosures fell within Sec. 56.10(c)(4)’s exception to the ban on unauthorized disclosure of medical information.
Under Sec. 56.10(c)(4), the justices said, Kaiser may disclose “medical information regarding a patient” to its attorneys when they are “engaged in reviewing the competence or qualifications of health care professionals or in reviewing health care services with respect to medical necessity, level of car, quality of care, or justification of charges.” And that exception is not implicitly limited to only relevant information, they ruled.
The Legislature specifically elected not to impose a relevancy limitation on subsection (c)(4), even though it did craft express limitations on some of the other exceptions, the court observed. Moreover, the court noted, in reenacting the current version of the statute, the Legislature elected not to add consumer privacy protections beyond those already provided in the discovery rules.
“Such a restriction would, in essence, raise an intolerable barrier between a health care organization like Kaiser and its attorneys,” Justice Paul R. Haerle, writing for the court, said.
“[T]he legislative determination to omit a relevancy limitation from section 56.10(c)(4) is an acknowledgment that all patient information in Kaiser’s possession is sufficiently potentially relevant to a malpractice claim to merit disclosure to Kaiser’s own attorneys,” he added.
The justices further held that Kaiser’s practices did not infringe the privacy rights of patients intending to bring malpractice claims against the organization. Such patients have no reasonable expectation of privacy in their medical records as to the attorney retained to defend the malpractice claim, Haerle wrote.
The court also held that Proposition 64 provided an alternative ground for dismissing CCHCC’s suit.
Although CCHCC specifically asserted it was suing on behalf of the general public, it failed to allege that it was representing a specific Kaiser patient who had been injured by Kaiser’s policies—contrary to Prop. 64’s requirement that parties bringing a representative action must show injury in fact, loss, and satisfaction of class certification criteria.
Kaiser spokesperson Matthew Schiffgens told the MetNews Kaiser was pleased the court published its decision.
“From our perspective, it’s an important opinion. It allows for attorneys representing their clients to be able to look through the necessary information and sift the relevant from irrelevant without undue or needless interference. Attorneys need to be able to prepare for litigation.”
CCHCC’s attorney, Martin Lawrence Blake of Baum & Blake in San Francisco, could not be reached for comment.
The case is California Consumer Health Care Council v. Kaiser Health Care Foundation, A108697.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company