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HIPAA Medical Privacy Regulations Go Into Effect April 14: Are You Ready?

FOI Alert

Contact: Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Co-Chair, 406/542-4449 or ian@kpax.com

On Monday, April 14, an important new set of federal regulations intended to protect the privacy of Americans’ personal health and medical information will go into effect. These new rules also will make it harder for journalists to follow up on victims of accidents, disease outbreaks or other community traumas.

The rules are known as the “Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information” rules and were required by Congress as part of a federal law called HIPAA (Health Information Portability and Accountability Act) passed in 1996. 

For the record, SPJ was among those who asked the Department of Health and Human Services to make the rules recognize the media’s important role in informing communities about traumas and their impacts on individuals. We specifically asked that general information about patients be made available if it’s connected to a public record -- a police accident or crime report, for instance, or a fire department call.

Our comments were ignored and the rules make no mention of the media’s role or of the importance of informing communities in certain circumstances.

Simply put, the rules require hospitals and other health providers to obtain patients’ expressed permission before releasing any information beyond the immediate circle of health providers, insurance carriers or other entities specifically identified. (The media is not one of them.)

That means a hospital will not be allowed to release information about a patient’s presence in the hospital, the nature of the ailment or injury, or even the general condition of the patient without permission.

The new federal rules provide severe penalties for unauthorized release of information. This will make health providers very nervous about releasing information, even when there may be a compelling public interest in providing the media–and the community--with certain facts.

As the health providers in your community prepare to implement these new rules, journalists should do the following:

Talk with your hospitals and medical providers about how they will implement the rules.
One good way to begin the conversation is to ask about the changes patients will see in the way their doctor / clinic / pharmacy / emergency room conducts normal business.

(For instance, will more conversations between patient and provider happen behind closed doors? Will waiting room staff no longer ask about “what’s wrong?”)

Once you’ve begun the conversation, ask about the availability of patient information to the media, especially in cases where a public record of the incident exists. Will hospitals ask patients for waivers of confidentiality as a matter of routine? Are they willing to work with media to develop specific policies about confirming whether patients are in the hospital and what their general condition is?

Will your local health departments be able to relay important information to the media?
This might be information on infectious disease, food-borne illness or impacts from toxic releases in the community.

Will local law enforcement or emergency service personnel provide information from accident scenes?This may prove to be the most important way to get information when an accident occurs. Reporters should make sure to ask for the following at the scene:

  1) Identification of victims.
  2) Where (usually, what hospital) they were taken.
  3) The extent of injuries.

How will the rules impact access to state death records?
The federal rules contain a provision to override state death records. Will your state still make death records available after April 15?

SPJ also is looking for stories of how the new HIPAA rules have impacted journalists’ ability to do their work. If you have an example, please contact any of the following:
   Ian Marquand, FOI Committee Co-Chair
    Charles Davis, FOI Committee Co-Chair
    Robert Leger, SPJ President
    Julie Grimes, SPJ Deputy Executive Director

SPJ FOI Alert Vol. 8; No. 6
To subscribe to the Society of Professional Journalists FOI Alert, contact SPJ at spj@spj.org or call 317/927-8000. In your message, provide your name, organization, mailing address, e-mail address, phone number and fax number. There is no fee. We strongly encourage the wide dissemination and publication of these alerts in other forums.

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