Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Health bill: Hiding information

Keep public's access

For years, the Ohio General Assembly has chipped away at the state's open records laws, trying to keep more and more data hidden from the public and the media.

The latest example involves a bill, being considered by the Senate Finance Committee today, that would set up a state network to fight bioterrorism and would enact various reforms in the Ohio Department of Health. These are laudable goals, but in the process, the legislation could be used to hide information about a company being investigated by the state for possible health violations.

The problem is in the wording of Sub. H.B. 6. It would change existing law to say that "protected health information" exempt from disclosure should include information "that identifies a person." As a "person," legally, can be a corporation as well as an individual human, that would mean that the media could not ask health departments for the names of firms being investigated.

That's unacceptable. It could mean news blackouts on health information the public has a right to know in "situations ranging from food poisoning at a local restaurant all the way to large-scale violations at sites such as the Buckeye Egg Farm," notes Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.

Deaner and representatives of other groups opposed to the language - the Sierra Club of Ohio, ACLU of Ohio and others - plan to testify at today's committee hearing, after which Chairman Bill Harris, R-Ashland, will bring the bill to a vote. Other committee members - including Republican Lou Blessing and Democrat Mark Mallory, both of Cincinnati - ought to be asking some tough questions.

This is not just semantics. Deaner said the state health department intends to expand the definition of "protected" health data.

As we said last week in opposing a gag order on the release of a racial profiling report, open access to public information - which the public usually has paid for anyway - is vital to a free society. The Ohio Supreme Court has said as much. In a 1996 decision, it declared that the state's open records laws should be "construed liberally, in favor of broad access, and any doubt is resolved in favor of disclosure of public records."

There are legitimate reasons to keep some information private. Several classes of data about minors, for example, are shielded by Ohio law. But we should resist attempts to expand the definition of "protected" information, particularly where the public's health is concerned.

State lawmakers should amend the language in the health department bill. While they're at it, they ought to amend their chronic "Don't ask, 'cause we won't tell" attitude.

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