Miss. court says listing ailments on collection notice not privacy violation

Published 11:21 pm Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled in a Lee County case that a collection agency can’t be held liable for disclosing private medical information in an attempt to collect an unpaid bill.

According to the court record, a Tupelo urology clinic turned over an open account to Franklin Collection Service Inc., which filed for a judgment in Lee County Court. In its filing, the collection agency included an itemized statement of Patty Kyle’s bill including tests performed.

Kyle countersued, saying the clinic and the collection agency invaded her privacy, violated medical privilege and inflicted emotional stress by listing her treatment and codes for various services provided by the clinic.

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Justice Jess Dickinson, writing Thursday for the Supreme Court, said the information disclosed in the public record was not part of medical privilege because Kyle did not communicate this information to her physician.

“The Legislature has not found it wise or appropriate to bring the names of medical procedures within the purview of the statute, and we shall not do it for them here,” Dickinson wrote.

Dickinson said Kyle couldn’t collect for her claims of emotional distress because she didn’t submit an affidavit or other evidence of physical injury that would result in a jury finding the collector’s actions as outrageous or repulsive, as required by law.

In a dissent, Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. said by holding that the law of physician-patient privileges relates only to patient communication to the physician, the court had adopted an interpretation that the same court rejected nearly 100 years ago.

In cases dating back to 1915, Diaz said the Supreme Court has held that the word “communication” included not only oral statements but information obtained by physical examination as well.

“The itemized statement is a medical record, which according to this court’s long-standing case law, is covered by the statutory physician-patient privilege.

“In this case, the nature of Ms. Kyle’s treatment was made a matter of public record. However, according to the majority, any person who fails to timely pay a medical bill, even when the patient is making a good faith effort to pay, may have her highly private medical information disclosed to the public,” Diaz wrote.

Diaz said the ruling also gave any person who discloses such private medical information in an attempt to collect an unpaid bill immunity from liability.

“Public policy, as well as our statutes and case law, require that we hold such persons liable for breach of the physician-patient privilege,” he said.