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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Patient Zip Codes Protected From Release Under FOIA

In a recent FOIA case, King v. Cook County Health & Hospitals System, 2020 IL App (1st) 190925, an Illinois appellate court concluded that a public body properly refused to disclose the zip codes of former mental health patients because zip codes are confidential and protected from disclosure under the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Confidentiality Act (Act). 

In 2017, a requester submitted a FOIA request to the Cook County Health and Hospitals System (CCHHS) seeking the zip codes of former patients received mental health services while detained in the Cook County Jail. In response, CCHHS produced various responsive maps reflecting the ranges of individuals residing in certain demarcated areas. However, CCHHS refused to disclose the zip codes, arguing that zip codes of mental health recipients are exempt from disclosure under FOIA sections 7(1)(a) and 7(1)(b), which allow public bodies to withhold private information from disclosure. Likewise, CCHHS refused to produce the zip codes after the PAC issued a non-binding opinion recommending that CCHHS disclose de-identified zip codes records to the requester. The requester then sued, and the circuit court ordered CCHHS to produce the complete zip codes. 

On appeal, the appellate court reversed and concluded that zip codes for former patients is protected from disclosure. First, the appellate court noted that the Act requires all former patient records and communications be kept confidential and protected from disclosure, except for limited exceptions found in the Act. Because CCHHS is a HIPAA covered entity, it was authorized to redact or withhold patient zip codes because disclosing zip codes would reveal identifying patient information in violation of the Act. Although CCHHS offered to provide redacted zip codes, the requester maintained she was entitled to unredacted patient zip codes, arguing that FOIA’s disclosure requirements override the Act’s confidentiality provisions. The court disagreed. Reading the Act and the HIPAA privacy rule together, the court decided that zip codes must be de-identified before being disclosed since zip codes are confidential and protected under the Act.  

The appellate court also cited Illinois Supreme Court cases recognizing that Illinois has a strong, well-developed public policy in favor of keeping mental information confidential. Although FOIA generally requires that exceptions be narrowly construed in favor of promoting transparency in government actions, here, the court concluded that CCHHS properly withheld the zip codes under FOIA section 7(1)(a) because the Illinois public policy and the Act protect against the disclosure of confidential medical information.  

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink


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