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Student journalists wage battle for H1N1 death certificates

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  1. Freedom of Information
Journalism students at the University of Southern California are waging a battle to obtain the death certificates of individuals who…

Journalism students at the University of Southern California are waging a battle to obtain the death certificates of individuals who have died from the H1N1 virus, the school’s online news site Neon Tommy reported.

Reporters at Neon Tommy filed requests with county health officials to evaluate the government’s response to the spread of the H1N1 virus in California. Two counties — Los Angeles and Fresno — reversed initial denials and handed over swine flu death certificates to reporters, but at least 10 other counties denied the records requests in full, citing patient privacy rights.

The confusion over whether the records are public stems from the misconception that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — the HIPAA privacy rule — prevents disclosure of death certificates. But the Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish told Neon Tommy reporters that wasn’t the case.

"HIPAA is intended to apply to medical providers that exchange information electronically," she said. "A state public records agency is not a medical provider. So the fact that [counties] would invoke a federal law saying it somehow governs their own state record-keeping ability is ludicrous."

Even the federal government’s guidelines specify that HIPAA cannot be applied to keep information secret when a state’s public records laws require disclosure, Neon Tommy reports noted.

For now, the students are using the 44 death records received from Los Angeles County to give a face to the mounting death toll. Student journalists profiled some of the swine flu victims on the school’s Web site and are mapping the location of victims on a Google map. They plan to continue the fight to get all swine flu death certificates from the state of California.