Health IT, Policy

Feds want Lance Armstrong’s medical records. Would HIPAA allow it?

Lawyers for the federal government want to get their hands on the medical records of disgraced cycling champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong in order to see if Armstrong’s physicians knew he was using performance-enhancing drugs as early as 1996.

As the Associated Press first reported last week, lawyers for the federal government want to get their hands on the medical records of disgraced cycling champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong in order to see if Armstrong’s physicians knew he was using performance-enhancing drugs banned by cycling’s international governing body. The government is trying to recoup more than $30 million the U.S. Postal Service paid to sponsor Armstrong’s pro cycling team.

The rub is that this is a civil case and that the records the feds want to see date to 1996. The HIPAA privacy rule allows limited disclosure of protected health information to law enforcement in the investigation of crimes, and the regulations did not take effect until 2002.

According to UK-based Cycling News, Armstrong’s records from Indiana University School of Medicine “could back up testimony made by Frankie and Betsy Andreu, who first described witnessing a 1996 conversation between Armstrong and his cancer doctors at the school in which he allegedly admitted to using EPO [erythropoietin], testosterone and steroids.”

Armstrong won a record seven consecutive Tours de France from 1999 to 2005, but was stripped of his victories in 2012 after he was found to have cheated. Armstrong competed for the USPS team for all but the last of those wins.

AP reported that government lawyers on July 30 subpoenaed the Indiana University medical records — as well as records for a $1.5 million donation Armstrong’s cancer foundation made to the school — and Armstrong’s legal team asked a judge to block the subpoena on privacy grounds. The AP report also said Armstrong admitted in a July 23 deposition that he was taking performance-enhancing drugs before 1996, the same year he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Attorney Bruce Merlin Fried, head of the Washington office of Dentons and an expert in healthcare policy issues, noted that HIPAA allows a court to issue a subpoena to release medical records in a civil case under certain circumstances. “The court might require that you demonstrate relevance” to the suit, Fried told MedCity News.

“Is it a fishing expedition, or is it relevant to the case?” Fried asked. “You couldn’t just [force Indiana University] to turn it over.”

As for the timing, Fried said it likely does not matter that the records the plaintiffs want predate the HIPAA privacy rule. “The question is whether or not the court issues a subpoena.”

State law also might come into play, Fried noted, since HIPAA is meant to serve as a floor. States are allowed to impose more stringent privacy protections, and many states had medical privacy laws in place before 2002.

Photo: Doug Pensinger/Allsport via Getty Images