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Thursday, March 22, 2012

LAFD Flip-flops on information black-out

 L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa orders fire chief to overturn gag order

A day after the Los Angeles Fire Department declared it would stop releasing basic information to the public and media about many of its emergency calls, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered the fire chief to overturn the new policy.

The department stopped releasing some information over the weekend about incidents such as fires or accidents, including the types of injuries or basic victim information such as age or gender.

Fire officials cited the move as an attempt to meet the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a law passed in 1996 and amended in 2009 that tightens restrictions on patients' medical privacy.

The LAFD claimed it was following advice from the office of City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.

"If we continued to post it ... we would be violating HIPAA," said Capt. Jaime Moore, LAFD spokesman. "We cannot give out pertinent medical information, anything related to address, age, gender."

But Villaraigosa, in a letter to Fire Chief Brian Cummings, pointed out that the department had not been issued a formal written opinion from the City Attorney's Office, and ordered LAFD to resume releasing the information.

"I believe it is our duty to provide information to the media and the public," Villaraigosa wrote. "At a time when the Los Angeles Fire Department needs more transparency - not less - I'm directing you to immediately resume releasing information that provides LAFD incident specifics without violating federal law."

LAFD's decision to cite HIPAA as a reason to stop releasing information comes just as the department faces heavy criticism for misleading city officials about response times and dispatch problems that left some emergency calls unanswered.

Fire officials said the timing of the new policy was coincidental, and not in retaliation for the negative media attention on the department.

"The timing is horrible, but it has nothing to do with our response times," Moore said. "This only has to do with medical information. That's the furthest thing from the truth."

But that explanation rang false to the department's own rank-and-file.

"I doubt that it's just some coincidence, that all of a sudden (Cummings is) going to issue a media blackout and when the media is X-raying him," said Pat McOsker, president of the firefighters union."
The City Attorney's Office has been advising the department on HIPAA issues for years, but the decision ultimately rests with the department, said Trutanich spokesman Frank Mateljan.

"HIPAA is not necessarily a blanket prohibition against the release of all public information," Mateljan said. "There are lots of complicated issues including HIPAA and privacy concerns that we continue to advise the department on, but we've been consistent with our advice over the years."

The new policy will likely fall apart if challenged under the Public Records Act and open the city to lawsuits, according to Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspapers Publishers Association.

"It certainly is a novel interpretation of HIPAA as I understand it," Ewert said. "LAFD is a care provider as defined by law, but the information with respect to response times and locations of responses, I just don't see how that falls into the category of individually identifiable information."

"The timing of the legal analysis is a bit questionable in light of all the investigation that has been done up to this point," Ewert said.
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