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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Generic (Unidentifiable) Patient Admission Information Subject to FOIA

In 2018, the Chicago Sun-Times submitted a FOIA request to Cook County Health and Hospitals System (CCHHS) seeking 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. CCHHS denied the request alleging that the records were exempt pursuant to FOIA exemption 7(1)(a), because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibits disclosing personal health information (PHI), as well as FOIA exemption 7(1)(b), which exempts private medical information. After the Sun-Times filed a lawsuit alleging that CCHHS denied the records in violation of FOIA, the trial court ruled in favor of CCHHS.

After the Sun-Times appealed, we posted on this blog about the First District Appellate Court’s reversal of the trial court and ruling in favor of the Sun-Times. In that post, we discussed how the Appellate Court held that CCHHS could disclose the years that gunshot patients were admitted and the years that law enforcement was notified about those admissions without violating HIPAA or a patient’s privacy rights, because this information could be “de-identified” to provide only the years while removing other PHI. Similarly, the Appellate Court determined that disclosing the year of a patient’s admission, by itself, does not constitute a private medical record prohibited from disclosure under FOIA section 7(1)(b), especially where the information “is entirely divorced from any personally identifying information.”

In Chicago Sun-Times v. Cook County Health and Hospital Systems, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court’s judgment. Specifically, the Court found that disclosing de-identified information regarding the year of admission and police notification is not specifically prohibited by HIPAA, so CCHHS improperly withheld the information pursuant to FOIA exemption 7(1)(a). The Supreme Court also rejected CCHHS’s argument that the entire medical record is exempt under FOIA exemption 7(1)(b), finding that the year element is not private medical information under FOIA, and that by removing uniquely identifying information from a patient’s healthcare history, the remaining non-exempt, de-identified portions of the responsive record is subject to disclosure.

Post Authored by Eugene Bolotnikov, Ancel Glink


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