The APWU and National Association of Letters Carriers (NALC) reached a settlement [PDF] with the Postal Service on May 20, 2010, ending a 2008 lawsuit in which the unions charged the USPS with “systematic and widespread intrusions” into members’ medical records. The settlement requires the Postal Service, agents of the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG), and officers of the Postal Inspection Service to provide specific documentation to healthcare providers when they request medical information about postal employees.
In accordance with the agreement, the Postal Service and its agents must present a “HIPAA letter” to healthcare providers before asking them to disclose any health information about employees. The letter must include a description of the information sought and a statement demonstrating how it is relevant to a legitimate law enforcement inquiry. The letter also must instruct healthcare providers to provide only information that is relevant to the investigation of the employee’s alleged violations of law.
HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which protects the security of health data. The law outlines rigorous rules for safeguarding the privacy of medical records, but permits healthcare providers to disclose information to law enforcement officers and “health oversight” agencies without patient consent for legitimate law enforcement purposes and other activities authorized by law.
In accordance with HIPAA rules, the letter requesting medical information instructs healthcare providers to refrain from notifying employees of the disclosure of their records for a period of 30 days, unless OIG agents or Postal Inspection Service officers request a longer period.
The settlement addresses two major concerns that prompted the lawsuit: The alleged intimidation of healthcare providers by OIG agents and Postal Inspectors, who frequently demanded employees’ medical records without explanation, and the indefinite prohibition against healthcare providers notifying postal employees about the disclosure of their records.
“The OIG can no longer violate employees’ rights by using police state tactics when conducting sick-leave or workers compensation investigations,” said APWU President William Burrus. “The obligation to provide details about a request — instead of demanding access to private records — prevents the OIG from abusing its power when investigating routine personnel matters.”