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News associations submit objections to medical privacy rules

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Apr 2, 2001    

News associations submit objections to medical privacy rules

  • The Bush administration reopened the comment period for federal rules that would close access to a broad range of health care information for reporters.

Two state associations, the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, seized the lead in preparing objections to medical privacy rules issued as final in December by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The two groups on March 30 submitted comments objecting to the stringent medical secrecy requirements that were joined by 40 national and state media association signatories.

The medical privacy rules were to become effective in February but the Bush administration placed them on hold pending a new review and allowed a brief comment period. The Society for Professional Journalists also filed new comments.

The rules would virtually shut down information from a broad range of health care workers — including ambulance services — absent written consent from patients. They make some provision for whistle blowers who report health care abuses involving individual patients, but only insofar as the wrongdoing is reported to the government. Sources who inform the news media of such wrongdoing would be subject to civil and criminal penalties including fines and imprisonment.

The news groups told the government that these rules would effectively censor news reports on everything from “basic hospital information about patients who are victims of violent crime, traffic accidents or natural disasters to investigative reporting concerning health care fraud, patient abuse or environmental hazards.”

They urged HHS to revise the rules by accounting for the public’s legitimate needs for information from hospitals and other health care sources. Privacy concerns cannot be used to trump public interest and accountability at every turn, they said.

The comments were accompanied by a substantial folder of news stories showing what kinds of reporting would be chilled by these rules.

The news groups also asked HHS to now consider comments initially made on proposals to these rules in February 2000 by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and by SPJ, which were not addressed in the government’s 330-page assessment of the 52,000 public comments it received before publishing final rules.

HHS drew up the rules because it was directed to do so by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

(Counsel: Mike Killeen, Davis Wright Tremaine, Seattle) RD

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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