Largest Postal Unions Sue to Block IG's Access to Medical Records

The two largest unions of United States Postal Service workers have filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York to stop the USPS inspector general's office from obtaining postal workers' medical records. The IG's office is investigating employees' use of leave, and it is giving health care providers a letter that states a worker's health information can and should be turned over without notifying the individual because the IG's office is a health oversight agency entitled to the information, adding that notice to the worker "would likely jeopardize our oversight activities." The two plaintiff unions in National Association of Letter Carriers, et al. v. United States Postal Service and United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General, No. 08-CV 00458, together represent 482,000 USPS workers. Their lawsuit was filed Jan. 17.

William H. Young, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, wrote Sept. 27 to James C. Miller III, chairman of the USPS Board of Governors, saying he was "shocked" to learn that IG inspectors are obtaining workers' entire medical files with the letter. Privacy safeguards in the HIPAA law (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) forbid obtaining this data without notification of the employee, Young wrote. Wendy A. Hocking, secretary of the Board of Governors, responded with a letter dated Nov. 2 that said the IG office's actions are within its statutory authority, so the board will take no action.

The lawsuit says the IG's office started this practice in 2006. Previously, it acquired any personal medical information it needed from the workers, not their health care providers, the suit states. The current practice violates both HIPAA and the Privacy Act of 1974 and should be enjoined from continuing it, the lawsuit states.

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