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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: NC Lt. Gov. Robinson Wrong In Claim About HIPAA

In this week's Fact Check, we’re looking at a claim made by North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. In a recent Facebook post, Robinson criticized a plan by the Biden administration to send advocates door to door in some areas to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Robinson, a Republican, wrote that “showing up at the front doors of people’s houses and violating HIPAA laws by requesting private medical information regarding their vaccination status is unacceptable and illegal.”

Paul Specht of WRAL helps us assess that statement.

Marshall Terry: Paul, we've heard HIPAA invoked a lot in regard to vaccinations. What is HIPAA?

Paul Specht: Exactly, yes. HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, back when it was passed. And there have been a lot of rumors, a lot of misunderstandings about this law. You've probably seen on social media people spelling the acronym wrong, people thinking the "P" refers to "privacy," but that's not actually what it's about.

The biggest thing it does is protect you, a private individual, from having your health information shared among different entities without your permission. For instance, if you go to the doctor and you have a health issue, it goes obviously in your file. And so the doctor's office has your information in there. Well, they cannot transfer that information or give it to someone else or any sort of company or anything like that without your specific permission. That is why it was designed. It does not have anything to do with personal interactions where questions are asked among strangers.

Terry: So was Robinson correct when he wrote that going door to door to ask people about their vaccination status is illegal under HIPPA?

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson
North Carolina
North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson

Specht: No, he's not. His post is inaccurate because files, documentation are not being shared in these interactions. HIPAA does not govern conversations between two individuals. So for instance, Marshall, I could ask you if you're vaccinated, and that is not a violation of anyone. I have the freedom to ask that. You have the freedom to answer or not answer. You don't have to answer. And in fact, you don't have to cite any law in order to not answer. It's just your personal right to do so or not do so. And so that's what this comes down to.

And one thing that was important to point out that White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, and that's that most — if not all — of these cases, it is volunteers who are going door to door in communities where people are under-vaccinated. It is not government agents or law enforcement officials or anything like that. These are people in your community that you might know that you might have heard of. They're going to come to your door and ask if you're vaccinated, if you know where you might be able to get vaccinated. It is not an interrogation. These interactions are not going to be documented and then shared with companies or anything like that, which is what HIPAA protects against.

Terry: So what did Robinson mean by what he wrote then? Did you reach out to him about that?

Specht: We did reach out to him and never got a response. We emailed his spokesperson. We emailed his staff. We spoke to four experts from across the political spectrum who all said that he is misinterpreting this law. It's about entities sharing your personal information. HIPAA is one reason that doctors and nurses will ask to confirm your ID multiple times. When you go to the doctor's office, you might have to show your driver's license. You might have to repeat your birth date. You might have to even give your Social Security number. All of that is so that they make sure that you are who you say you are and they are not accidentally giving your health information to a stranger.

Terry: Something else that is on the mind of many people right now is if their place of work can ask if they are vaccinated or not. Would that be a violation of HIPAA?

Specht: No. And PolitiFact has checked that claim before. And in our specific fact check of Mark Robinson, we didn't go into that in much depth, but we do link to another fact check that is about businesses asking employees if they're vaccinated. And again, simply asking someone if they're vaccinated is not a violation, and it's not a violation of law to not answer. Now, your employer may have a rule about it, but that's not the same as violating the law.

Terry: So how did you rate this claim by Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson?

Specht: He referred to government officials going door to door and violating HIPAA by requesting private medical information regarding their vaccination status. Now, we don't know that anyone is going door to door and asking for people's private medical documents or anything like that. And even if they were, people would have a right to say no. But what's going on here is volunteers are going door to door in under-vaccinated communities and asking people if they have been vaccinated, if they know where they can be vaccinated.

That in and of itself is not a violation of HIPAA. People are allowed to ask questions, and people who don't want to be asked those questions are allowed to just simply not answer. And that should be a relief for people who do value their privacy. You don't need HIPAA to refuse to answer a question. You can just refuse to answer. That's why we rated this post false.

Terry: All right, Paul, thank you.

Specht: Thank you.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.