Medical information

Reporters often need basic healthcare-related information while covering stories, even if just to state the condition of someone involved in a car crash. But a decade-old law -- the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA -- and its more recent implementing regulations have cut off access to much of this information, either directly or by leaving health care professionals reluctant to cooperate with the news media for fear of receiving large fines.

Generally, the privacy-related provisions require that most doctors, hospitals and other health care providers obtain a patient's written consent before using or disclosing the patient's personal health information. Federal officials have said that the rules apply to any health-related records or communications -- oral, written, electronic or otherwise -- that contain information that could identify a patient. The rules create severe civil and criminal penalties for noncompliance, including fines up to $25,000 for multiple violations within a calendar year and fines up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment up to 10 years for knowingly misusing individually identifiable health information. The regulations offer some provisions for disclosure, but only in emergency situations and only to groups such as law enforcement officials.

But the rules have led to a significant loss of what was previously public information, despite the fact that the rules themselves make no reference to journalists nor do they specifically prohibit the release of information for newsgathering purposes.

Although the rules allow for an exception for limited disclosure in the case of directory information -- the name and hometown of patients, their admittance and discharge times and general status -- journalists are finding that hospital officials are withholding more information than necessary to avoid any risk of penalties. Ambulance records were also an early casualty in the effort to protect medical privacy. Ambulance logs can yield abundant information about first response medical efforts. But whether or not ambulance operators and emergency personnel are covered by HIPAA, most of them seem to believe that it's better to withhold information that they once regularly released.