With the debate heating up on the merits of government-run healthcare, coupled with the increasing concerns about individuals’ privacy as it relates to personal data, AOPA is receiving more calls from members who are asking about just how much of their personal health information is actually available to the FAA. It’s a very good question that will probably become more relevant as time goes on.
Let’s approach the question from the back door first, and review how the FAA has historically obtained medical records for the purpose of determining one’s eligibility to hold an airman medical certificate. That part is pretty simple. The Application for Airman Medical Certification (aka “the medical application,” “the 8500-8,” or the online medical application, “MedXpress”) that we complete each time before we see the aviation medical examiner is the primary method of providing the FAA with medical history as part of the initial medical certification process. That said, the plot gets a little more tangled if what we provide to the FAA on the application indicates a potential condition that requires more detailed medical information before the FAA can determine if that applicant actually is qualified for the medical. At that point, the FAA reaches out to the pilot to request additional information, so even in this situation, the FAA directly contacts the pilot to ask for records.
Back in 2004, a Department of Justice investigation known as Operation Safe Pilot identified a significant number of individuals who were fraudulently collecting Social Security disability payments for all kinds of serious medical conditions. Through a series of circumstances, the investigation turned to looking at airman medical applications, and that twist identified some of those individuals as licensed pilots who had not reported the medical conditions for which they were collecting disability on their medical applications. A small number of those pilots were actually prosecuted by the federal government, but that isn’t the point.
What made this case so interesting is that it brought to the forefront the fact that federal agencies not only had the capability to share and use that information for enforcement purposes, but used it. Keep in mind that the investigation took place in 2004, and many of us were still somewhat naïve about the government’s ability to exchange information since it was still fairly early in the Internet age. Nowadays, most Americans just expect that is the case, so the level of suspicion is understandably higher.
At this point, we are not aware of any pending regulations, executive orders, or other government authorization that would allow or require the FAA Aerospace Medical Certification Division or other FAA medical authorities to access our medical information without our knowledge or approval. For now and the foreseeable future, I expect that any questions the FAA has about our qualifications to hold a medical certificate will still require that they reach out to us as the pilots and request that we provide any necessary medical records for review.