Safety and OSHA News

Can employer demand information from workers’ comp recipient’s doctor?

Does HIPAA prohibit companies from obtaining medical information directly from a doctor treating a recipient of workers’ comp benefits?

Georgia’s Supreme Court has weighed in on the matter.

Laura McRae, an Arby’s employee, suffered third-degree burns to her esophagus after mistakenly drinking lye left in a break room cup.

She received workers’ comp benefits and signed a form authorizing release of her medical information.

Her doctor issued a report that McRae had reached maximum medical improvement and sustained a 65% permanent partial disability impairment.

After receiving the report, lawyers for Arby’s requested a conference with her doctor, but the doctor refused to meet without McRae or her attorney present.

Arby’s sought one of two things:

  • that McRae’s request for a hearing in her case to be dismissed, or
  • that her doctor be ordered to meet with a representative of Arby’s.

The state workers’ comp board ordered McRae to sign a medical release authorizing her doctor to meet privately with a representative of Arby’s.

McRae refused to sign, but the order was upheld by the appellate division of the workers’ comp board and by a state court.

However, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the order, holding that Georgia law didn’t require the doctor to meet privately with the employer or its representatives.

That’s when the case went to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Federal vs. state laws

The state’s highest court said Georgia law clearly waives any protection of an employee’s medical records once the worker submits a claim for comp benefits, receives income benefits or the employer has paid any medical expenses.

The Court of Appeals’ ruling had distinguished between medical records and medical information, for example, anything communicated in a face-to-face meeting. It said medical records had to be turned over, but a private meeting between a doctor and employer wasn’t required.

The state supreme court disagreed. It noted the law doesn’t specify how medical information is to be communicated — it doesn’t distinguish between records and verbal communication, for example.

But what about patient privacy required by HIPAA? “HIPAA’s privacy provisions do not preempt Georgia law … because HIPAA exempts from its requirements disclosures made in accordance with state workers’ compensation laws,” the court noted.

However, the court added this word of caution: “We urge the parties when requesting such communications, and the board when authorizing them, to set parameters consistent with privacy protections afforded under state and federal law.” Specifically, the medical information conveyed must pertain to the workers’ comp claim.

For those reasons, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the workers’ comp board acted properly by ordering McRae to sign a limited medical release or have her case removed from the hearing calendar.

What should the balance be between patient medical privacy and information provided to an employer in a workers’ comp case? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

(Arby’s Restaurant Group v. McRae, GA Supreme Court, 11/5/12) (PDF of decision)

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Comments

  1. No reason to disallow that conversation as long as the information shared is relevant to the injury.

  2. This is why I’ve always said it’s important to have a good relationship with you company’s medical provider. The best way to do that is to speak respecfully, ask relevant questions, don’t accuse an injured worker of “faking”(even if you suspect it), and if possible let them know that you treated your employee fairly. Of course an ER doctor is a completely different subject. I have yet to figure them out.

  3. How does the court know what information is conveyed in a private meeting? They should insist that the employee or her attorney or a neutral third party be present. Meanwhile, what is Arby’s doing with lye in the breakroom–or anywhere else?

  4. I believe the HIPAA laws should be removed from Workers Compensation cases. I think everything about the injury, illness, etc., is Germaine to the action causing the injury. Now, I do believe that the information should be protected and only reviewed or observed by th in one way or another by those whose official duties require their participation. Conversations should also be shared. Look, the employer pays the WC costs, and once an employee enters the WC system – sharing of medical information in all forms is required.

  5. SafetyLady says:

    I guess my question is why would Arby’s want to meet privately and what is their issue with McRae being present? I agree that Arby’s Reps have a right to a meeting but no doctor should say anything different when both parties are present. In my world facts are facts and don’t change.

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