Father says HIPAA law may have contributed to son’s death

By Ali Gorman, R.N. for Action News 6, Philadelphia, PA

PHILADELPHIA – April 2, 2013 (WPVI) — If you have visited any medical center in the past 15 years, you have probably heard of the HIPAA privacy law. One local father is now urging lawmakers to change it. He says it is too strict in some cases and may have contributed to his son’s death.

In a tribute posted on YouTube, Justin Wolfe’s fraternity brothers at Temple University say he was genuine, fun-loving and caring. “Always having our backs. That is something I always appreciated and admired about him,” Ross Goodman said in the video. His father also says he was the light of his life from the very beginning. But tragically that light went dark last December.

Justin died of an accidental heroin overdose. He was 21.

His parents knew he was addicted to painkillers. He was on their insurance and so they got help for him from doctors. Wolfe says those doctors also knew Justin was snorting heroin. But due to the HIPAA privacy rule, that was kept confidential. “Myself or his mother as the caretaker for him should have been made aware of his heroin addiction and that it escalated because now it is a life-threatening situation,” Justin’s father Gregg Wolfe said. He says had he known the severity of his son’s problem, he would have made him go to an in-patient rehab center. “Every day of my life I suffer knowing there would have been or could have been something I could have done to save his life,” Wolfe said.

So now he is writing to lawmakers including President Obama. He wants an exception to the HIPAA law stating parents can have access to vital information regarding their children if they are under the age of 26 and not mentally stable or addicted to drugs.

We spoke to Robert Field, a health policy expert at Drexel’s Earle Mack School of Law. He says HIPAA can be a tough balancing act. “On the one hand we want people to feel comfortable releasing private information to their provider because otherwise the provider can’t decide on appropriate treatment,” Field said. And without that trust, a patient may not seek treatment at all. But on the other hand, he says you have cases like this where sharing information could have been helpful. Still, he says, the law must be one size fits all.

Justin’s father says he will continue the fight as he continues to mourn the loss of his firstborn son. “I miss his love. I miss his smile, his caring, his compassion, his friendship,” Wolfe said.