AUSTIN, Texas State public-information laws override federal health-care privacy laws, a Texas appeals court ruled on June 16 in a case being eyed by public-information advocates across the country.
The case stems from complaints that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA, hampered journalists' pursuit of information that had previously been accessible under the state's public-information law.
Some reporters, as well as police investigators, around the country have been stymied by hospitals under HIPAA.
Police and fire departments and hospitals in some cases were using the law which prohibits disclosure of individually identifiable health information to withhold information on crime and accident victims. Some even refused to disclose whether someone was injured and how.
In Texas, a case developed after a request by the Austin American-Statesman for information from state Mental Health and Mental Retardation officials. The agency refused the newspaper's request for assault statistics at MHMR facilities.
The Third Court of Appeals on June 16 upheld a 2004 opinion by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, declaring that information already deemed public under state laws would remain that way. The ruling is Abbott v. Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.
Abbott's opinion, among the first in the country on the matter, challenged the conclusion of a district judge who ruled that such information was not subject to disclosure under the federal law.
"We are pleased the court ruled to uphold the open records laws of Texas, and at the same time, comply with requirements to protect medical privacy of individuals," said Abbott spokesman Tom Kelley. "This opinion gives important guidance to every Texas governmental body that is faced with a public-information request for medical information where HIPAA applies."
Advocates had been concerned that an appeals court ruling against Abbott could close off information if authorities feared they would be violating the law.
Abbott's ruling "helps bring some focus and sanity to a law that, though well intentioned, created as many problems as it was supposed to solve," said Timothy M. Kelly, vice president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
"The issue wasn't privacy, it was common sense and public safety."