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Final version of medical privacy rule doesn't address media concerns

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Aug 12, 2002    

Final version of medical privacy rule doesn’t address media concerns

  • Federal patient privacy regulations allow redaction of private data before release, but press advocates say harsh punishment of sources who improperly release information would stifle newsgathering.

While the Bush administration heralds new federal medical privacy rules issued Aug. 9 by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, journalism groups maintain that the revised rules continue to threaten news coverage.

Patient privacy measures for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act give patients “the power to protect their privacy and still get efficient care,” Thompson said in announcing approval of the Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information.

But concerns registered by journalism groups that the new rule will impede coverage of medical care or virtually any other health-related issue are only briefly addressed in the standards’ final version.

Under the privacy rule, hospitals and other medical entities can “de-identify” or delete certain information about medical patients released to requesters — including names, street addresses, telephone numbers and vehicle identifiers. But the allowable data only includes information such as dates of admission, discharge and death; age; the patient’s age in months, days and hours; and a five-digit ZIP code.

Hospital personnel and others with access to the information face heavy fines and imprisonment for releasing certain data without written permission from patients.

This spring, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society for Professional Journalists and other media organizations submitted objections to the latest proposed rule, saying approval would stifle reporting on issues including crime, public health and the hospital industry. The Reporters Committee also submitted comments on earlier proposed rules and those concerns were not addressed in later versions.

While the final version of the privacy rule recognizes “the important role performed by newspapers and other media in reporting on public health issues and the health care system,” no accommodations were made for the newsgathering process.

The rule will be published in final form in the Federal Register on Aug. 14. The regulations take effect April 14, 2003.


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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