Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Get Back

Here is a little pushing back from the public, in this case an editorial from the Lufkin (Texas) Daily News:
"If the state attorneys prevail who are arguing that HIPAA (the popular acronym for the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) overrides state FOI laws, the public will be denied information we believe it is entitled to have. Here are just a few examples of how HIPAA stymied attempts to get basic information:
---The names of victims of auto accidents, assaults and fires would not be released.
---Coaches wouldn't be able to talk about injured football players, or even name them.
---Ministers would not be able to find out if church members were in the hospital and in need of solace.
---People can't call and find out the condition of friends who have been hospitalized. "
Of course, the arguments here are the same we have heard before. As a former newspaper reporter, I can sympathize with the editor's frustration. Information is a newspaper's stock in trade. But is the public, or in this case a newspaper's need to know more important than the individual's privacy?
The four bullet points are easily answered with questions: Does the public right to know trump the individual's right to privacy in the case of an auto accident? (I don't think that HIPAA covers fires, unless there is a medical condition attached, either injury or exacerbation of an existing condition.) Coaches, of course can talk about injured players, because a coach is not a covered entity, so we will dismiss this one as hyperbole. Does the right of a minister to minister override the individual's right to privacy? And how, exactly, is the minister finding out? By calling the hospital and asking for a list? And the last one is the meat of the matter. The privacy rule allows the individual or the individual's representative to be in control of who knows what is going on with the individual's health information. It protects us all from snoopy neighbors, gossiping churchmembers, and anyone who wants to identify themselves as a friend, neighbor, minister, or newspaper reporter. We all are annoyed sometimes by what we have to do to be compliant. That annoyance is tempered, usually, by knowledge that our privacy is ours to control.
Sunshine laws are important, but I think the editor here has forgotten their purpose. They were enacted to protect the public from the government and its agencies using secrecy to hide wrongdoing, shady deals, cronyism, and blundering, not to provide free information to anyone who asks about anyone they care to ask about. I have great sympathy for any working reporter who has to do his or her job, obstructed by just about every rule or regulation that a suspicious public institution can throw in the way. That sympathy doesn't extend to allowing free access to my health information.

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