In recent years, more and more laws have been passed to protect disabled individuals in the U.S. Whether the disability is physical or mental, lawmakers have worked to make sure that disabled people have the same rights as everyone else and are not discriminated against simply because of their disability. Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) have been established for these reasons, and they’ve benefited countless people with disabilities. These laws have also helped people who own emotional support animals (ESA).
There’s one other law that works to protect you as an ESA owner. It’s called HIPAA for short, but it stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. It was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. HIPAA was created in order to modernize the flow of health care information, to stipulate how identifiable information is maintained by the health care and health insurance industries and to protect from fraud and theft, and to address limitations surrounding health insurance coverage. In short, HIPAA provides you with more privacy around your personal medical information. Here’s a quick breakdown of how HIPAA works.
What information is protected?
- Information your medical professionals (including doctors, nurses, or other providers) put in your medical record
- Conversations your doctor has about your care or treatment (with nurses, other medical staff, etc.)
- Information about you in your health insurance company’s computer system
- Your billing information
- Most other information regarding your health or medical treatment
Who can look at your information?
There are limits to who can access your information, and the goal is for providers to protect your information but still be allowed to share it with necessary parties. Information can be used:
- To help with your treatment and the coordination of your care
- To pay doctors and hospitals for your health care
- To give family or friends who are involved with your health care access to information about your care (typically you must sign paperwork ahead of time that documents you’re okay with them receiving information)
- To make sure doctors provide high-quality care and that clinics, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes are clean and safe
- To protect the public’s health (like when they report the flu is in your area)
- To make required reports to the police (such as reporting gunshot wounds or suspicious injuries)
Your information will not be shared with your employer or for marketing or advertising purposes unless the party has received written permission from you. There are some organizations who don’t specifically have to follow HIPPA. These include:
- Life insurance companies
- Workers’ compensation carriers
- Most school districts and schools
- Many state agencies (such as child protective agencies)
- Most law enforcement agencies
- Many municipal offices
How your information is protected
- Covered entities must put safeguards in place to protect your health information and make sure they don’t disclose your information inappropriately.
- Covered entities must limit the disclosure of your information to the least amount of people necessary to accomplish what they need to.
- Covered entities must have procedures in place to limit who can get access to your information (as well as to create training programs for employees on protecting your health data).
What rights you have
You can ask health insurance companies or providers to comply with the following:
- Ask to see and get a copy of your records
- Have corrections made to your information
- Receive a notice that tells you specifically how your health data may be used or shared
- Decide whether you give your permission before your health information is used or shared for certain purposes (such as marketing or advertising)
- Get a report whenever your health information was shared and why
If you believe your rights are not being protected, you have the option of filing a complaint with your provider or health insurance company or by filing a complaint directly with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This can be done by going to the HHS.gov website.
So, how does HIPAA work to protect you as an ESA owner? It’s pretty straightforward: because landlords are not protected agencies (or directly related to health care organizations), they do not get access to your private health information (whether it’s regarding a physical or mental disability). A landlord or building owner is not legally entitled to any kind of specifics regarding your diagnosis or condition. They can ask two things when reviewing your situation: Is there an existence of a disability? And can they see documentation (your ESA letter) that addresses your need for an ESA? They can definitely get in trouble if they’re asking any kinds of questions outside the scope of this. To help them understand that you have a legitimate need for an ESA, you should make sure your ESA letter contains relevant information, including:
- The name of the mental health professional and what they specialize in
- The type of license and its registration number
- The issue date and expiration date of the medical license
- Verifiable contact information for the professional
- The type of animal and name of the animal being registered
- The ESA certificate ID number
In the ESA letter, your mental health professional can simply state that they’re treating you for a mental health condition and that they believe you would benefit from owning an emotional support animal. No other information about your personal health data needs to be given. If you don’t have a professional that you trust, you can always use a site like Moosh that can connect you to a licensed professional in your state to help write your letter. Their site is also 100% in HIPAA compliance, so your personal information won’t be used without your knowledge.
Just remember that you have every right to control and protect your personal medical data under HIPAA. Don’t feel hesitant to remind anyone (especially someone involved in your housing situation) that they don’t legally have a right to receive any additional information about your mental health. Obtain a legitimate ESA letter and you can present that as the only data your landlord has a legal right to receive. Then you and your emotional support animal can live in comfort, knowing that information about your health has stayed private.