Memorial Hermann's Privacy Leak: Illegal Immigration and Health Care Privacy

Submitted by admin on Thu, 10/15/2015 - 00:00

Today, we are going to look at an interesting legal and ethical question: Can health clinics report an undocumented immigrant, or is that a breach of trust? There have been several cases of undocumented immigrants and healthcare privacy over the years, but this particular one is rather interesting. Remember, it’s not the case that they are collecting free healthcare or committing insurance fraud, but simply that they are undocumented. So what is the correct approach to this issue? Let’s look at this latest case in Texas...
Case in Kingwood, Texas
At the Memorial Hermann’s Northeast Women’s Healthcare Clinic in Kingwood, Texas, an undocumented immigrant woman named Blanca Berrego attempted to obtain healthcare with a fake Texas driver’s license. It’s important to note that she hadn’t committed identity theft, as the identity on the driver’s license was her own. While waiting with two of her children in the waiting room, the health clinic sent validation to law enforcement after she had no second means of validation (such as a passport).
Unique case
The clinic, and almost all health care clinics in general, don’t usually ask patients about immigration or residency status. This is a particularly unique case, as it hadn’t happened at Memorial Hermann’s ever before. Also, despite what happened, the clinic didn’t actually contact authorities to arrest her, but to verify the driver’s license. While this action led to Berrego’s arrest, that wasn’t the actual intent of the health clinic.
There are many that say this situation represents a breach of trust in the doctor-patient relationship, and while that may be true, it wasn’t necessarily an illegal action. The case was a side effect of procedures put in place to protect from identity theft, such as verification. Typically, this is why they ask for a second form of identification. Also, the Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act allows clinics to report personal information if there is evidence of a crime occurring on the premise of that clinic. Because of this, there is some legality to the case.
Other side
Despite all of that, there are critics who question whether this would qualify, as there was no hard evidence of a crime occurring at the clinic. This sort of action may end up destroying the trust that is crucial to the doctor-patient relationship. According to HIPAA, the only time that a physician is able to report crimes without concrete evidence is if there is a case of possible child abuse or violent crimes, none of which apply here. Many are concerned about the ethics of turning undocumented immigrants to immigration authorities while they are in the process of seeking healthcare. It brings up a larger ethical question that healthcare must address!
The future
There is currently consideration in Texas to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, as they usually drive anyways. This would have helped clarify a case such as this, but there are still many questions to answer. Healthcare providers are pushing back against data collecting on undocumented immigrants, citing worries that these people will not receive preventative care, causing their problems to only get worse. This will eventually put more stress on emergency rooms as these issues go unchecked. Also, while many of these immigrants have health insurance, they are not always using it for fear of legal action.