IAFF LOCALS who are considering sending get well cards to the patients they’ve helped may want to reconsider.

It’s a good idea in theory, but the reality of a LOCAL sending a get well card could “unintentionally open Pandora’s box” when it comes to violating HIPAA regulations.

Recently, a LOCAL asked the IAFF for help on a PR campaign centered on sending greeting cards to the patients they transported.  We thought it would be good to share our concerns with not only the individual LOCAL who contacted us, but with our entire membership who may be considering a similar project.

At one time, sending greeting cards to patients was a great marketing tool for IAFF LOCALS wanting to boost profiles in their communities. However, as the IAFF interprets current HIPAA regulations, LOCALS sit outside the realm of the “HIPAA care giving bubble” for patients. IAFF members as providers are considered inside the “bubble”. Protected health information from inside the bubble cannot pass to the outside.

What this means for you is that for the LOCAL to know a medical event has taken place, certain protected health information would have to pass from “inside the health care bubble to the outside” before there’s knowledge of a patient or event to send a card. This is precisely what HIPAA was supposed to prevent. The regulation’s intent was to keep drug and medical equipment companies from trying to use patients seeking medical assistance as potential customers. HIPAA blocks patients from non-providers. The IAFF LOCAL is not a provider or even considered a ‘business-associate’ under the rules. So please understand, if a LOCAL receives medical event information for the purposes of a ‘get well card’ it has nothing to do with the recipients’ care. He/She who shares the information has violated HIPAA in its purest form and there are consequences for this.

The fire department can send a patient response survey to a patient – which includes a ‘we hope you get well’ note and a request to comment on the service because that’s inside the HIPAA care bubble and system evaluation. The LOCAL, whose only function is to make sure its member responders are taken care of (in the eyes of the Federal government), cannot know about patient, or the situation, or anything really.

This is not to say it is impossible.

IAFF affiliates should seek local legal advice to see how HIPAA friendly your idea is before moving forward with a project like this. If there are any other locals who are sending get well cards and have had no problems under HIPAA let the IAFF know. Tell us how you are handling your get well cards.