In the dark

When Tom Koutsos, a running back for the Southern Illinois University football team, injured his wrist during a game against Murray State, he never thought that disclosure of his injury could violate federal law. School officials, though, have begun to change the way an athlete’s injury is reported to the press.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, HIPAA, spurred medical privacy rules that will go into full effect on April 14. These Department of Health and Human Services guidelines restrict the release of a patient’s medical records to a healthcare provider, health plan or clearinghouse. The rules are designed to improve patient control over records, but as a result they could affect news gathering by journalists, even in their practice of reporting student-athlete injuries.

Although the release of medical information to the media is not specifically prohibited under the privacy rules, medical institutions might interpret the law as such for fear of punishment. Under the rules, noncompliance can result in severe civil and criminal penalties, reaching as high as $250,000 in fines and 10 years in jail.

As for universities, it is unclear where they stand under the law.

Colleges must categorize themselves as healthcare providers for their release of medical records, including student-athlete injuries, to fall under the jurisdiction of HIPAA, said Kathy Simple, team leader in the Civil Rights office of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services.

Still, some university athletic departments across the country are becoming tight-lipped about student-athlete injuries, at least until they receive consent from the injured player.

Tom Webber, the sports information officer for Southern Illinois, said that in the past the school might have gone into greater detail about an athlete’s injury. The current policy is to release only vague information. For instance, they would tell journalists an athlete has a leg injury rather than disclosing what kind of leg injury occurred and how severe it was.

Koutsos’ season-ending wrist injury would have been relayed to journalists as ‘right forearm, doubtful,’ trainer Ed Thompson told the school’s student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian.

Webber said the school is taking a wait-and-see attitude, and they will restrict more information if they need to.

Policies like these have some student journalists wondering if they will be able to tell their readers the full details of a player’s injury.

One college reporter at Western Illinois University remained adamant that he would print the details of a player’s injury after a college official said he could be sued for doing so. Dennis Coyle, editor of the Western Courier, said he obtained the injury report ‘legally and professionally’ from the player and published it with no repercussions.

The public has a fundamental right to know how an athlete is injured, said John Cherwa, president of the Associated Press Sports Editors.

The Newspaper Association of America, the National Newspaper Association and the American Society of Newspaper Editors have proposed guidelines that would protect journalists and their sources when gathering and reporting health information.

In a letter sent to the Department of Health and Human Services last spring, they assert that although journalists are not included in the law, ‘the massive civil penalties and felony prosecutions to be visited upon their sources of information would exert a chilling effect on the disclosure of matters of public interest, regardless of whether those matters are clearly covered by the rules.’

Whether a majority of colleges and universities restrict information about student-athlete injuries will not be known until after the compliance date in April.