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Texas open records law trumps federal privacy rules

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Texas open records law trumps federal privacy rules

  • The attorney general of Texas ruled that requests for patient information under the Texas Public Information Act are governed by that act, and not by the more restrictive federal rules of HIPAA.

Feb. 17, 2004 — When state officials are responding to requests for health information under the Texas Public Information Act, they should look to that law and not the more restrictive federal health privacy rules, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote last week.

The Feb.13 decision was requested by state Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock), and arose from a dispute between Lubbock officials and the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal over which rules governed the release of health information: the Texas Public Information Act or federal regulations to implement the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Congress enacted HIPAA to improve health care by creating a national health information system and establishing standards for the electronic transmission of health information. To that end, HIPAA directed the Department of Health and Human Services to create national privacy regulations for patient information. The HIPAA regulations, which went into effect in February 2003, prevent medical care providers from releasing anything greater than a one- or two-word statement about an individual’s condition, unless the individual waives his or her privacy interests.

The Texas Public Information Act requires information in the possession of the government to be public unless a specific exemption applies.

Because the state open records act requires government-held information to be public, and HIPAA permits disclosure “to the extent that such use or disclosure is required by law,” Abbott ruled HIPAA regulations cannot be used to withhold information requested under the Public Information Act.

The ruling does not mean that all agency-held health information is public in Texas, as a number of exemptions to the open records act still apply. The state act permits only “information regarding the presence, nature of injury or illness, age, sex, occupation and city of residence” to be released.

In addition, the opinion only affects requests specifically made under the Public Information Act. Other requests must comply with HIPAA’s stricter requirements.

Duncan had specifically asked whether the HIPAA regulations would apply to information requested from police officers or emergency first-responders. Abbott ruled that for requests not made under the Public Information Act, HIPAA would apply to emergency first-responders because they are “health care providers.” The regulations would not apply to police officers, he said.

(Texas Attorney General Opinion No. 681, February 13, 2004) GP

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