Healthcare Business News

Judge sides with Boston Globe in mental health patient profile

By Melanie Evans
Posted: August 22, 2014 - 7:45 pm ET

Both Steward Health Care System and the Boston Globe are claiming they got what they wanted in a recent court ruling (PDF) in which the healthcare system sued the Globe regarding an article which had not yet been published.

The paper had sought comment from Steward about a profile it was preparing of a mental health patient treated at Steward's facilities. The article would have unfairly maligned Steward, the Boston-based system contended in its court filing. It said it could not respond to the allegations to be made without violating patient privacy restrictions. The system sought to release the patient's records.

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A Massachusetts judge ruled Thursday that Steward could not release patient medical records in response to the upcoming Globe profile, nor could it review the Globe’s reporting or patient records the paper had collected.

Steward, a formerly Catholic-owned health system sold in 2010 to Cerberus Capital Management, asked for court permission to disclose the medical records of an unnamed patient identified in court papers as “John Doe,” who is the subject of an unpublished profile of a family affected by mental illness.

Court records include emails from the Globe that claim the patient was admitted to three Steward hospitals, but was quickly released, despite concerns by his family that he needed further hospital care. The visits and one two-day wait in an emergency department before he was admitted were outlined in email from the Globe to the health system seeking information on hospital policies for mental health patients.

Steward Health Care told the judge it could not respond without permission to release medical records and review records the patient had given to the Globe.

The judge denied Steward’s request to release the records, but granted the system some leeway to address questions about the patient’s care. “A patient who criticizes a perceived undue delay in an emergency room does not open the door to the hospital’s release of all confidential medical information,” said Suffolk Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke in a statement released on Twitter by Globe reporter David Abel.

Locke said Steward Health Care could confirm or deny events, diagnoses or situations in response to reporters’ questions and “comment broadly” on whether information was incomplete or inaccurate. Health system officials also could comment on the adequacy of medical care.

Herbert Holtz, an attorney for Steward Health Care, said the system was satisfied with the ruling, which will allow it to respond to questions without violating a federal patient privacy law, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The newspaper does not have to provide Steward with any of Doe’s medical records, as Steward had requested, the judge said. Holtz said that request was moot after the judge granted Steward the limited ability to answer questions.

Ellen Clegg, spokeswoman for the Boston Globe, said, “We're gratified that the court affirmed our right to report and publish this story."

Follow Melanie Evans on Twitter: @MHmevans

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