The Little Picture: New privacy act is a headache for TV

Nov 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Hospitals. What would your local TV newscast do without them? They’re not just handy for live shots. Inside every hospital is a special room called the press office. There you’ll find people who are more than happy to put your health reporter in touch with just the right expert to help her localize that drab B-roll she took off the satellite. Localizing, advertising-call it what you will, it works.
That’s why I was dumbfounded to hear from the PR person at one of the largest medical centers in Kansas City, Mo. He explained that he had recently taken the unprecedented move of denying the CBS affiliate access because its newscasts were reporting the locations of crime victims. The PR guy explained that this could put those patients and hospital staff in jeopardy; in fact, one victim got paid a visit by some “associates” not long after the station reported her whereabouts.
Sounded like a sweeps-month story to me, so I wrote it. Afterward, the hospital and the TV station smoothed over their differences. But as I discovered, this wasn’t just a tempest in a teapot. More like the tip of the hypodermic needle.
Across the country, hospitals and news organizations alike could be turned from partners into adversaries. The reason is a new set of federal regulations set to take effect next spring. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was passed during the first Clinton administration, but the rules designed to protect patient privacy are just kicking in now. They are comprehensive and maddeningly imprecise. And like all such edicts they are subject to the law of unintended consequences.
The gist of the new rules-explained in a convenient 42-page booklet with three columns of 8-point type-is that health care providers can’t disclose anything about anybody they’re treating unless the patient says so. Violators can be socked with fines of up to $250,000 and jail time.
The government’s intent sounds decent and upright enough, but what if a patient is involved in a disaster and loved ones are trying to find her? What if the patient is a public official trying to cover up a recent heart murmur (not that this would actually happen)? What if the patient’s case is material evidence in a criminal probe of the hospital that treated her?
All good questions that the Radio-Television News Directors Association has been asking. “Would the Columbine victims’ names have been released?” wonders Barbara Cochran, the group’s executive director. “We’ve filed comments.”
Health care providers may be more worried than the press. Until now, the two have had an orderly arrangement. When a crime or accident victim comes in, the hospital releases the patient’s condition. If the safety of the victim is in question, the media is asked to hold its live shots elsewhere and say only that the victim was being held “at an area hospital.”
Under the new rules, however, hospitals can be fined $50,000 for so much as divulging one patient’s name to the media. No matter how much the PR person trusts a reporter, it’s just not worth the risk when the patient can invoke federal law.
“Whereas hospitals have been able to work with the news media and trust their discretion, those informal arrangements will be problematic in the future,” predicts Gerald Sill, general counsel for the Missouri Hospital Association.
Without the hospital’s brokering information, news organizations will be on their own, quizzing police and eyewitnesses to figure out just how badly victims were hurt. And you thought TV news already made wild exaggerations. Wait until reporters start relying on the observations of wide-eyed bystanders.
So what’s the solution? Everyone I interviewed seemed pessimistic that the rules would be relaxed. But many news directors, mindful of their health franchise, don’t want to tick off the hospitals, either.
My impression, then, is that partnerships between hospitals and local media will be more crucial than ever.
One observer predicted that a whole new nomenclature will arise. Hospital spokesmen will learn to use vague but carefully chosen phrases that the media-which, after all, are not subject to the new regulations-will then use to nonspecifically confirm what their nonmedical sources have told them.
Such a lot of work to cover a car wreck. It sounds like a headache in the making. Where’s a health reporter when you need one?#
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in Electronic Media. He covers television for the Kansas City (Mo.) Star, and his Web site (www.tvbarn.com) covers TV topics daily.