Other campus: HIPPA hold up

By College Heights Herald

(U-WIRE) BOWLING GREEN, Ky. -Does anyone wonder why we haven’t named the student who initially contracted tuberculosis in any of our stories?

The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act, a 2-year-old law designed to protect privacy, makes it illegal for health care providers to disseminate that kind of information.

However, we didn’t even try to get the student’s name. We felt that the name wasn’t relevant to the story. Had we known the name and published it, we would have caused unnecessary harm to the student and would probably face legal issues of our own. If we can tackle these types of issues, shouldn’t professionals be able to do the same?

HIPAA was created to foster change in the health care system. According to citrix.com, its purpose is to “enable better access to health insurance, reduce fraud and abuse and lower the overall cost of health care in the United States.”

Although its intentions are good, this law has resulted in many unexpected consequences, especially for the journalism community.

A September 2004 article in Quill Magazine highlights one of many instances where HIPAA was a roadblock to journalists.

A porch collapse during a party in Chicago in June 2003 killed 12 people and injured more than 50. Reporters from the Chicago Tribune had a tough time getting information from the hospitals. A few of the larger hospitals provided the reporters with counts of victims, but many wouldn’t even confirm treated patients from the accident citing, HIPAA as the reason for their silence.

Journalists have a responsibility to make sure stories are legitimate, and that’s nearly impossible without information from quality sources. The Chicago Tribune was finally able to confirm its story when its source provided hospital discharge papers.

This case differs greatly from our tuberculosis stories. People could have benefited from the Chicago Tribune being able to identify the injured and dead in a well-rounded story. The porch accident was one of those instances in which the public’s right to know should have outweighed the privacy issue.

HIPAA doesn’t take the benefit to the public into account, and we feel it should. Professional publications are capable of making ethically sound decisions about the effects of publishing medical-related information.

HIPAA has another major pitfall for journalists. Malpractice, fraud and abuse within the health care system are as well-protected as patient information.

Contrary to popular belief, journalists don’t spend their days digging up dirt to find traces of corruption. But should we come across it, especially in the health care industry, it would serve public interest to report on the issue. HIPAA makes it extremely difficult to gain access to documents or get worthwhile statements from sources that would give this type of story credibility.

HIPAA isn’t entirely bad. It makes an attempt to improve health care in this country, but that comes at the expense of press freedom. Some will undoubtedly disagree, but we feel precedence should go to the First Amendment issue. The right to privacy is implied, but not written.

Surely there is a way to reconstruct HIPAA in a way that protects the individual with regard to health insurance while allowing journalists to obtain pertinent information for accurate stories.

Journalists may not be licensed, but we take our work seriously. We are more than capable of knowing the difference between using information for the public good and abusing it.

Have a little faith in our profession.