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Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Court Authorizes Limited Disclosure of Medical Information Under FOIA

In 2018, the Chicago Sun-Times submitted a FOIA request to Cook County Health and Hospital System (CCHHS). The first part of the request sought policies, memos, and other records regarding CCHHS’s compliance with the Criminal Identification Act (Act). The second part sought the times/dates of admissions for gunshot wound patients seeking treatment at CCHHS, and the corresponding times/dates these admissions were reported to law enforcement. Although CCHHS disclosed responsive policies, CCHHS withheld the requested time/date records based on FOIA section 7(1)(a), which exempts information specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or state laws, and FOIA section 7(1)(b), which exempts private information. The Sun-Times filed a lawsuit alleging that CCHHS improperly withheld records under FOIA. The trial court ruled in favor of the public body, finding that the requested records were exempt from disclosure. The Sun-Times appealed the trial court’s ruling. 

On appeal, the Appellate Court reversed the trial court and ruled in favor of the Sun-Times. Chicago Sun Times v. Cook County Health & Hospital System. The Appellate Court held that disclosing the years that gunshot patients were admitted and the years that law enforcement was notified about those admissions was not prohibited by federal or state laws. Although CCHHS argued this information was “protected health information” (PHI) prohibited from disclosure by HIPAA regulations, the court rejected that argument, finding that because the information could be “de-identified” to provide only the years while removing other PHI, CCHHS could disclose this information without violating HIPAA or a patient’s privacy rights.

In addition, although FOIA prohibits disclosing “medical records,” under section 7(1)(b) of FOIA, the Court held that the year of a patient’s admission, by itself, does not constitute a private medical record prohibited from disclosure under FOIA, especially where the information “is entirely divorced from any personally identifying information.”

Based on this court decision, a public body may have to release medical-related information if that information is not identifiable to a specific individual. 

Post Authored by Erin Monforti and Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink


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