A Medical Information Crackdown. (Privacy Rules)

Article excerpt

Aisling Swift was freaking out. The Durham crime reporter for the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, was working her beat, calling hospitals to check the condition of gunshot victims. But hospitals repeatedly told her they had no record of those patients. As she grew suspicious, a sympathetic spokesperson finally clued her in: Swift was having a "HIPAA problem." Translation: The shooting victims might have been patients, but hospital officials believed new federal rules barred them from sharing that information.

Patient privacy regulations stemming from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act are reshaping the way hospitals dispense patient information to reporters. The Clinton-era rules, which took effect April 14 for health-care providers and most health plans, are intended to protect patient confidentiality. But they also could suppress information needed to cover public health problems and incidents with injuries.

The rules do not specifically address how to release information to the media. But health-care workers could incur civil and criminal penalties of up to $250,000 and 10 years in prison for releasing protected information. Media attorneys and press advocates worry the threat of such penalties will freeze the dispersal of even innocuous facts and silence whistleblowers who have sought reporters to expose wrongdoing in hospitals or doctors' offices.

"Many medical institutions will simply close the doors and windows rather than risk an error in their interpretation," warned Tonda Rush, counsel to the National Newspaper Association, in a recent posting to a freedom of information listserv.

Rebecca Daugherty, director of the FOI Service Center for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, predicts "an effect on newsgathering that I don't think anyone was willing to consider in passing HIPAA rules. What happens when you have a Columbine? What happens when you can't find out who was shot and who wasn't? They won't be able to put out the lists they put out at Ground Zero of who's at the hospital."

Hospital directory information, now largely off-limits, enabled journalists and the public to track victims felled during the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, the anthrax scares and school shootings.

Such stories could be "severely stifled without reporter and public access to hospital directory information and other record sources," Phillip Taylor, an Atlanta freelance writer, wrote in a reporters committee guide. "Such information helped the public fully understand the effect and extent of the tragedies."

No longer can reporters call a hospital spokesperson and request a condition report on a 37-year-old male with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. The American Hospital Association has interpreted the rules to mean that reporters must have a patient's first and last name to obtain a condition report. And even if reporters have the name, the hospital can only release a one-word description of the patient's condition--undetermined, good, fair, serious or critical--unless the patient or the patient's representative has signed a release. …