A video recently posted on YouTube documents at least the third incidence in a short period of time of a Southern California paramedic harassing a citizen for recording a medical emergency on a public street.
According to the description accompanying the footage, this interaction occurred at approximately 5:30 p.m. on June 20 of this year.
The videographer is standing on a sidewalk outside a private residence recording members of the L.A. County Fire Department’s Station 34 wheeling a person on a stretcher to an ambulance.
As one of the firefighters notices the filming is taking place he slows down and apparently asks “Are you family?”, to which the cameraman replies in the negative.
The firefighter then asks “Are you a neighbor?”, and the cameraman replies “Yes”.
The firefighter then says “I don’t think you’re allowed to tape people’s medical problems. There’s a law against that”.
The citizen replies with “Call a cop”, since he is no doubt aware that he has the First Amendment right to record anything occurring in public, especially government employees performing their duties in a place visible from the sidewalk he was currently standing on.
The firefighter is then joined by a colleague and both mistakenly inform the citizen that he is in violation of HIPAA, the federal patient privacy law that applies to physicians and other health care workers regarding medical records, not people recording from a public street.
The first firefighter, now seemingly thinking he is a police officer as well, then has the temerity to ask the citizen where he lives, to which the photographer replies “Don’t worry about it.”
The second firefighter responds by sarcastically telling the photographer “You’re a pleasant gentleman“, and the photographer replies with an expletive telling them where to go. The video ends shortly after.
This latest video is reminiscent of two other incidents that recently occurred in Southern California.
In the first, which occurred on June 13, 2015, PINAC correspondent Shawn Nee was with a female friend named Destiny on a public street in Los Angeles when she fell ill and required medical assistance. The Los Angeles Fire Department was called and Station 29 responded to the scene.
As Destiny was receiving treatment, Nee began recording the actions of the firefighters with both video and still pictures from a reasonable distance while not interfering in any way.
Things were OK for a few minutes until a firefighter asks Nee “Can you hold off on that?”, meaning for Nee to stop taking photos.
Nee politely declines to do so, and then the firefighters begin talking about how he “can’t be near, or taking pictures” of his friend as it’s violating her “privacy”.
Nee asks Destiny if it’s OK if he takes her photo, and one of the firefighters jumps in and answers “No” for her.
When Nee asks why not, the firefighter responds that “Because now she’s under medical care, and then you’d be a HIPAA law violation”.
Destiny then attempts to steps in by informing the firefighters “But he has my permission”, to no avail. Nee (who is a certified EMT) and the firefighters briefly argue before Nee is forced to move across the street to continue documenting his friend’s treatment from the other sidewalk.
Ironically, Nee’s video captures another pedestrian walking down the sidewalk right next to where Destiny is being treated with no reaction whatsoever from the firefighters. Nee has filed a formal complaint and is scheduled to meet today (July 27) with internal affairs to discuss the situation.
In the second incident, which was reported on by Photography is Not a Crime, photojournalist J.C. Playford on July 9 was assaulted on a public sidewalk by a paramedic from the San Diego Fire Department for videotaping that agency wheeling a person believed to be a celebrity out of the San Diego Comicon on a stretcher.
In that case, the paramedic who grabbed Playford (and was rewarded with a knee to the groin from the cameraman) told him “This person has a right to privacy”, again seemingly referring to HIPAA, which has nothing whatsoever to do with filming publicly viewable medical emergencies.
Playford has since filed a formal complaint with the San Diego Fire Department brass over the incident.
In all three of these cases, HIPAA was misused to attempt to browbeat observers into not documenting a medical emergency occurring in public. Let’s attempt to clear this error up in the hopes of preventing similar “misunderstandings” in the future by public safety workers such as police officers and firefighters.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 was enacted by Congress to provide “federal protections for individually identifiable health information held by covered entities and their business associates and gives patients an array of rights with respect to that information”.
In short, it sets up a set of guidelines for who can access electronic patient records (insurance companies, health care providers and health care clearinghouses directly involved in the patient’s care, along with their business associates).
The law also gives patients the right to access their own records, make corrections, find out to whom their records were shared with and decide if their information may be used for marketing purposes, among other things. Some entities not bound by HIPAA regulations include, from the HHS website:
- life insurers,
- workers compensation carriers,
- most schools and school districts,
- many state agencies like child protective service agencies,
- most law enforcement agencies,
- many municipal offices.
So as we see, only a very specific set of individuals are required to abide by HIPAA, and they certainly don’t include innocent bystanders taking pictures of medical emergencies occurring in a public place as the photographers would have no earthly way to access the electronic patient records of the people in distress.
Actually, one could argue that documenting on video the care a patient receives is a benefit that protects both the patient and the health care workers attending him or her, as it provides an objective record of the event and can represent proof of the patient’ injuries as well as proper treatment by emergency personnel.
In fact, one of PINAC’s readers in Miami addressed this very same issue on our Facebook page after he had a seizure in public.
Hopefully this easily obtained information about the law will soon once again be disseminated to all SoCal public safety agencies to prevent further instances of public employees misusing HIPAA, whether intentionally or not, to deprive citizens of their right to document the actions of the workers whose salaries their tax dollars go to pay.