Journalists Cite “Chilling” Health Data Rules


New federal rules restricting release of information on medical patients are having a “chilling effect” on journalists’ “getting to the truth,” charges investigative reporter Duane Pohlman of Cleveland’s WEWS television.

At a freedom of information conference yesterday sponsored by the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, Pohlman and other journalists cited what they described as examples of unwarranted failure to release information under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Among them:

* The coroner’s office in Luzerne County, Pa., refused to release information on a man who had been shot to death by police, citing the federal law.

* A Virginia Beach, Va., police officer shot and wounded a man who resembled a rape suspect. Because the man ultimately was not charged, police would not release his name, and neither would a hospital, under the federal law. A local tv reporter told Pohlman that “HIPAA is making it very difficult to hold law enforcement accountable.”

* A Milwaukee hospital where a volunteer had routinely given gifts to cancer patients, accompanied by news reporters, halted the practice for fear that patients might be identified against their will.

Dan Shelley, news director of radio station WTMJ-AM in Milwaukee, expressed the hope that “public outrage” over such “unintended consequences” of HIPAA would prompt federal policy makers to amend the law and its implementing rules. “The public’s right to know is being outweighed by privacy concerns,” one journalist said.


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