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New Wrinkles: When Public Information Is No Information at All

Sarasota Herald Tribune

By Barbra Peters Smith

Judging by the calls and emails I get, you’d think elders stand almost no chance of decent care at the hands of today’s medical workers. But even when I believe these terrible stories, I can’t just report them without evidence.

So I often suggest filing a complaint with the state agency that verifies charges of abuse or neglect. Once upon a time, investigators at these agencies openly shared their findings with journalists like me — believing, as I do, that we’re on the same side, looking out for the public good and all.

In these litigious and blame-averse times, though, getting state officials to talk about what they do on our behalf is like asking them to slice open a major artery. Fortunately, in Florida we have stellar public records laws, so if we ask nicely and repeatedly, we generally get useful clues.

Recently I heard from a woman who believed her late husband had received bad care. She took her concerns to the Agency for Healthcare Administration, and showed me a letter saying its “representative found that rules and laws were violated.”

After waiting the required 45 days for the inspection report to go public, I requested a copy. When I saw it, I just started laughing.

So much of it was redacted — overscored with thick black marks — that the document was useless. Here’s an example:

“A routine visit on ——-16 revealed ‘Last —————– ——–.’ It was documented the ALF staff was instructed to administer ——————– ‘two days ago.'”

This was a new one on me, so I asked the agency why it was necessary to render public inspection reports unreadable to the public. Here’s the response:

“The Agency takes very seriously the protection of patients’ health information. In an effort to provide additional protection of personal health information and assure compliance with the federal HIPAA regulations 45 CFR Part 164, the Agency has implemented measures to remove information from deficiency statements that could potentially be used to independently or in combination with other information to identify an individual’s protected health information for the protection of the patient. The Agency processes public record requests as outlined by Section 119, F.S.” — Mallory McManus, Communications Director

But this makes no sense, since these reports have always labeled patients by number, and given no clues to identity other than maybe a gender reference. Just when I thought I might be overreacting, Brian Lee of the long-term care watchdog group Families for Better Care shared a report by the Orlando Sentinel’s Kate Santich, which traces the heavy hand with a Sharpie to an agency policy change late last year.

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