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Cancer data withheld on chance of patient identification

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         NEW YORK         Freedom of Information         Jun 3, 2002    

Cancer data withheld on chance of patient identification

  • Information about children’s cancer diagnoses in New York cannot be released because the identify of individual children might be surmised from the data, an appeals court ruled.

An appeals court in Albany, N.Y., ruled May 23 that the New York Department of Health can deny records from the state cancer registry, saying there is a risk that the information could reveal the identity of cancer patients.

The court affirmed the decision of a lower court that disclosure of records requested by Donald Hassig of St. Lawrence Environmental Action showing cancer diagnoses from the county could lead to the identification of cancer victims by people who might know the children.

The records, coupled with other information about the children that might be known in the community, could lead to the disclosure of the patients’ identity, the types of cancer they suffer and their treatment, the court said.

A federal law calling for reports on cancer cases provides that they are not to be made public so as to identify any person to whom they relate. The New York Freedom of Information Law exempts information that is made secret by state or federal law.

Hassig of Ogdensburgh, N.Y., asked for records of cancer diagnoses from 1976 to 1997 except where two or fewer cases occurred in a particular zip code. Of 81 children diagnosed with cancer in that period, 26 were in zip codes with more than two cases. The court said that persons familiar with those children might identify them from disclosures of registry information.

In December 2000, Hassig sought an opinion under the state’s FOI law from Bob Freeman, director of the state Committee on Open Government, after the Health Department turned down his initial request. Freeman recommended release saying that the disclosure would not identify any person, but the Health Department did not follow his guidance.

Hassig told The Associated Press that he plans to appeal. Hassig’s group has worked to identify cancer-related environmental factors in New York communities. He is a former Green Party candidate for governor.

(Hassig v. Dep’t of Health) RD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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