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HHS Web site: health privacy rules do not cover police reports

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    News Media Update         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information    

HHS Web site: health privacy rules do not cover police reports

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services makes clear in a new Web site that health privacy rules do not cover reporters and emergency personnel whom journalists frequently rely on for information about gunshot victims, car accidents and other newsworthy events.

Sep. 16, 2004 — In a new Web site, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services acknowledges for the first time that health privacy rules should not impede newsgathering by journalists from sources not covered by the rules or subjects not addressed by them. The site comes more than a year after news groups said that health privacy rules could not be interpreted to prevent police officers, firefighters and ambulance workers from giving information about victims in emergencies.

The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act does not forbid police or other emergency personnel from revealing information about victims of gunshot wounds, fires and other incidents typically reported by police and emergency personnel, the Web site states.

HIPAA, as the law is commonly known, has been cited by police and other emergency officials in denying important information to journalists, according to the National Newspaper Association. For example, the Beaver County Times and Allegheny Times in Pennsylvania reported that a local hospital cited HIPAA in not reporting a hepatitis outbreak to the public. In Oklahoma, the law has been used to justify withholding information about inmates who died in prison and failing to inform nursing home residents that registered sex offenders lived in the homes, the Tulsa World reported. Fire officials in Grand View, Mo., used the law in keeping secret the fate of residents whose nursing home caught fire, The Kansas City Star reported. The Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal reported that police used HIPAA to withhold information about murders and traffic violations.

“People have blamed HIPAA for all sorts of things. I recently saw a grocery store that said they couldn’t share information about groceries because of HIPAA,.” Richard Campanelli, civil rights director for the Department of Health and Human Services, told the World.

HIPAA, which went into effect in 2003, was designed to give people privacy and control over their medical records. It allows one to see his own medical records, to have errors in the records corrected and to deny having his information used for marketing purposes.


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