Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled Friday that the state’s public information law takes precedence over a far-reaching federal medical privacy law, a legal opinion he called the strongest in the nation.
His decision means Texas media outlets and individuals will have access to public information that some hospitals and authorities have declined to release under the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA.
“In Texas, government records are presumed open unless a specific exception applies. HIPAA is not an exception to the rule of openness in the state of Texas,” Abbott told the board of directors of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas at The Associated Press’ Dallas bureau, where he released his legal opinion. HIPAA, a sweeping overhaul of the federal health care privacy laws that took effect in April, has frustrated journalists and others who have found most basic information hard to come by. “What this means is, governmental bodies who’ve been using HIPAA as a shield just lost that protection,” Abbott said.
Abbott said Texas authorities worked closely on the language of the ruling with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which created the privacy regulations under the law. Still, he said, he wouldn’t be surprised if the ruling were challenged in court. “I would not be surprised if there was a lawsuit, but I don’t see one imminently,” he said.
A Health and Human Services spokesman didn’t return a call seeking comment Friday.
HIPAA itself says medical information is open if required under another law, Abbott said. He said the Texas Public Information Act is that law.
The ruling arose from a dispute between the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and local officials. The city attorney there initially declined to release information under HIPAA, but later changed her position while awaiting the attorney general’s ruling, said Randy Sanders, editor of the Lubbock newspaper and a member of the FOI board. “We’re just really excited about the attorney general’s willingness to rule on this issue,” Sanders said. “I never had any idea that this little deal would come up from our newspaper and maybe change the way other communities will rule on these things.”