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RI police, hospitals at odds in medical privacy debate

The Providence Journal, August 23, 2011

Rhode Island Hospital's records department rejected the court order –– and answered the subsequent subpoena by saying the law allowed 20 days to respond. A Providence detective investigating an alleged murder requested the medical records of the victim, who died at Rhode Island Hospital. In his request for the records in March 2010 -- nearly two years after the death –– the detective included a copy of the victim's death certificate, plus two signed releases from the man's father and adult son. Rhode Island Hospital refused. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was designed to protect the privacy of medical databases and imposes hefty fines against those who release patients' protected information. Even so, the federal law allows the release of some information to law enforcement, such as when the police need to identify a suspect, fugitive or material witness, or when the police are investigating whether a patient is a victim of a crime. States have their own versions of patient privacy laws, and Rhode Island's Health Care Confidentiality Law, written in 1978 and adapted over the years, is even more restrictive than the federal law.