Monday, October 11, 2004

Don't Ask (Cause) We Won't Tell

Through Angry Arab:
NEW LAW LIMITS DETAILS ON INJURED TROOPS

Relatives, even Congress, can be left in the dark about casualties
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Military families, veterans groups and even members of Congress are discovering that the new privacy law makes it difficult to get details about America's mounting war casualties in Iraq.

"You're creating a bit of a communications nightmare," said Paul Burke of Seymour, family coordinator for a Wisconsin National Guard unit stationed in Iraq.

Implemented about a year ago, HIPAA prohibits hospitals and other health care providers from releasing information about a patient without consent from the patient or next of kin. It also is intended to give people more control over their health records.

But the law's far-reaching implications have, in some cases, prompted public health officials to withhold information about communicable disease outbreaks, hospitals to refuse clergy information about ailing parishioners, and nurses to hesitate to leave information on a patient's telephone answering machine.

Now, military officials are citing the law in refusing to identify soldiers wounded in Iraq or disclose details about their injuries.

When eight members of a Waukesha-based National Guard unit were hurt Sept. 12 by a suicide car bombing in Baghdad, the military, citing HIPAA, would say only that none of the injuries was life-threatening and that three soldiers had been hospitalized. Family members later revealed that one of the most seriously hurt was the unit's commander and that another soldier had nearly lost a leg in the explosion.
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Some critics question whether the military's true intention in adhering so stridently to HIPAA is privacy - or secrecy.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of HIPAA's chief architects, said the senator never intended the law to keep Americans from learning about casualties in important military missions like the current war on terrorism.

Agreeing that soldiers have privacy rights, too, Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley said the military should be more assertive about obtaining consent from wounded soldiers so the public knows what is happening on the battlefields.

Asked whether the Pentagon might be exploiting the privacy law, Manley replied: "I have to be concerned that they are."
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Burke, family coordinator for the Waukesha-based 118th Medical Battalion Company B of the National Guard, got a first-hand brush with HIPAA when members of that group were wounded in the recent Baghdad car bombing.

Although being coordinator means he is supposed to disseminate information to families of Company B members, Burke found himself caught in an information bottleneck.

Military officials provided few details about the bombing and gave him explicit instructions on how information about the incident should be presented, Burke said. But many of the wounded soldiers contacted loved ones themselves and divulged details that were supposed to be kept under wraps.

In the end, Burke said, the military's handling of the situation raised more questions than it answered for some families - and left him worried.

"In an effort to protect everyone's privacy, we're pseudo-censoring what information we put out," he said. "It definitely seems that it's having effects that the people who created it didn't intend."

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