Saturday, March 27, 2004

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Backs Privacy of Hospital Abortion Records

As reported by the N.Y. Times today, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (in Chicago) became the first appellate court to uphold the right of hospitals to refuse to turn over abortion information to the Bush Administration's Justice Department. The opinion is here. The district court quashed the government's subpoena for Northwestern's abortion records on the ground that HIPAA does not preempt state laws that provide greater privacy protection than does HIPAA. Since Illinois law is very restrictive about turning over medical records, even after identifying personal information has been redacted, the district court reasoned that state law survived HIPAA preemption and controlled the evidentiary question posed by the DOJ subpoena. The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's order but disagreed with the lower court's reasoning. State privacy laws such as Illinois' do not provide evidentiary privileges in suits to enforce federal law (in this instance, DOJ claims that it needs the abortion information in order to enforce the federal law against partial-birth abortions). The Court of Appeals also rejected the district court's separate and independent basis for quashing the subpoena: a brand new, common-law privilege for abortion records:
He based this ruling on their sensitivity, which he compared to that of psychotherapists’ treatment records, held privileged in Jaffee v. Redmond, 518 U.S. 1 (1996). The creation of new common law evidentiary privileges is authorized by Fed. R. Evid. 501, and Jaffee is not the only recent case in which the authority was exercised. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. Chiles Power Supply, Inc., 332 F.3d 976, 979–81 (6th Cir. 2003); In re Air Crash Near Cali, Colombia, 959 F. Supp. 1529, 1533–35 (S.D. Fla. 1997), and United States v. Lowe, 948 F. Supp. 97, 99–100 (D. Mass. 1996), all created new privileges on the authority of Jaffee. But none relates to medical records and we are reluctant to embark on a case-by-case determination of the relative sensitivity of medical records of different ailments or procedures. Most medical records are sensitive, and many are as sensitive as late-term abortion records, such as the records of AIDS patients. Proceeding down the path taken by the district court would inevitably result in either arbitrary line drawing or the creation of an Illinois-type comprehensive privilege for medical records. Northwestern Memorial Hospital concedes that there is no federal common law physician-patient privilege. It is not for us—especially in so summary a proceeding as this litigation to quash the government’s subpoena—to create one, whether all at once or by a process of slow but inevitable additions to the sole category recognized by Jaffee.
The government wants abortion records on patients of doctors who are challenging the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, Pub. L. No. 108–105, 117 Stat. 1201, 18 U.S.C. § 1531, presumably to impeach them when they testify as medical experts in their own case. The Court of Appeals ultimately decided the burdens of production outweighed the benefits to the government:
What is true is that the administrative hardship of compliance would be modest. But it is not the only or the main hardship. The natural sensitivity that people feel about the disclosure of their medical records—the sensitivity that lies behind HIPAA—is amplified when the records are of a procedure that Congress has now declared to be a crime. Even if all the women whose records the government seeks know what “redacted” means, they are bound to be skeptical that redaction will conceal their identity from the world.

This is hardly a typical case in which medical records get drawn into a lawsuit. Reflecting the fierce emotions that thelong-running controversy over the morality and legality of abortion has made combustible, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and the litigation challenging its constitutionality—and even more so the rash of suits around the country in which the Department of Justice has been seeking the hospital records of abortion patients—have generated enormous publicity. These women must know that, and doubtless they are also aware that hostility to abortion has at times erupted into violence, including criminal obstruction of entry into abortion clinics, the firebombing of clinics, and the assassination of physicians who perform abortions. Some of these women will be afraid that when their redacted records are made a part of the trial record in New York, persons of their acquaintance, or skillful “Googlers,” sifting the information contained in the medical records concerning each patient’s medical and sex history, will put two and two together, “out” the 45 women, and thereby expose them to threats, humiliation, and obloquy. . . .

Even if there were no possibility that a patient’s identity might be learned from a redacted medical record, there would be an invasion of privacy. Imagine if nude pictures of a woman, uploaded to the Internet without her consent though without identifying her by name, were downloaded in a foreign country by people who will never meet her. She would still feel that her privacy had been invaded. The revelation of the intimate details contained in the record of a late-term abortion may inflict a similar wound.

If Northwestern Memorial Hospital cannot shield its abortion patients’ records from disclosure in judicial proceedings, moreover, the hospital will lose the confidence of its patients, and persons with sensitive medical conditions may be inclined to turn elsewhere for medical treatment. It is not as if the government were seeking medical records from every hospital and clinic that performs late-term abortions, in which event women wanting assurance against the disclosure of their records would have nowhere to turn. It is Dr. Hammond’s presence in the New York suit as plaintiff and expert that has resulted in the government’s subpoenaing Northwestern Memorial Hospital. . . .

The merits of the dispute are for determination at trial. The only issue for us is whether, given that there is a potential psychological cost to the hospital’s patients, and a potential lost in lost goodwill to the hospital itself, from the involuntary production of the medical records even as redacted, the cost is offset by the probative value of the records. The district judge presiding at the trial has said that the records are “relevant,” and no doubt they are—in the attenuated sense in which nonprivileged materials may be sought in discovery. “Relevant information need not be admissible at the trial if the discovery appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1); see Oppenheimer Fund, Inc. v. Sanders, 437 U.S. 340, 350–52 (1978); CSC Holdings, Inc. v. Redisi, 309 F.3d 988, 995–96 (7th Cir. 2002). The trial judge has not opined on the probative value of the records, which appears to be meager. . . .

The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was passed, as we said, in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Stenberg case. Stenberg was one of a number of “first generation” partial-birth cases. . . .

Were the government sincerely interested in whether D & X abortions are ever medically indicated, one would have expected it to seek from Northwestern Memorial Hospital statistics summarizing the hospital’s experience with late-term abortions. Suppose the patients who undergo D & X abortions are identical in all material respects (age, health, number of weeks pregnant, and so on) to those who undergo procedures not forbidden by the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. That would be potent evidence that the D & X procedure does not have a compelling health rationale. No such evidence has been sought, in contrast to the Planned Parenthood case, supra, at Transcript 26 (Mar. 5, 2004). A variant of the suggested approach would be to obtain a random sample of late-term abortion records from various sources and then determine, through good statistical analysis, whether the patient characteristics that lead Dr. Hammond to perform a D & X lead other physicians to perform a conventional D & E instead, and whether there are differences in the health consequences for these two groups of women. If there are no differences, the government might have a good defense of the Act. Gathering records from Hammond’s patients alone will not be useful; but if the government has other records (say, from VA hospitals) already in its files, then records of Hammond’s procedures might enable a useful comparison. The government hasn’t suggested doing anything like that either. Its motives in seeking individuals’ medical records remain thoroughly obscure.

The question whether the D & X procedure is ever medically indicated will be resolved as a matter of legislative fact not requiring the taking of trial-type testimony at all (see Hope Clinic v. Ryan, supra, 195 F.3d at 885 (dissenting opinion)), or will pivot on the clash of expert witnesses at the New York trial, or perhaps, as suggested in Stenberg, will be answered by some combination of these two approaches to determining facts. The medical records of expert witnesses are irrelevant to the first inquiry; and, so far as we can determine after having listened to the government’s arguments at length, those records will not figure significantly in the resolution of experts’ disagreements either.

The fact that quashing the subpoena comports with Illinois’ medical-records privilege is a final factor in favor of the district order’s action. As we held in Memorial Hospital for McHenry County v. Shadur, 664 F.2d 1058, 1061 (7th Cir. 1981), comity “impels federal courts to recognize state privileges where this can be accomplished at no substantial cost to federal substantive and procedural policy.” See also United States v. One Parcel of Property Located at 31–33 York Street, 930 F.2d 139, 141 (2d Cir. 1991) (per curiam). Patients, physicians, and hospitals in Illinois rely on Illinois’ strong policy of privacy of medical records. They cannot rely completely, for they are not entitled to count on the state privilege’s being applied in federal court. But in a case such as this in which, so far as we can determine, applying the privilege would not interfere significantly with federal proceedings, comity has required us not to apply the Illinois privilege, but to consider with special care the arguments for quashing the subpoena on the basis of relative hardship under Fed. R. Civ. P. 45(c).
The full opinion contains the suggestion -- hinted at rather than explicitly stated -- that the government's true motivation in seeking these records from hospitals across the country is harrassment -- of physicians and patients alike. The Court of Appeals may not have created a new common-law privilege, but it did the next best thing.
posted by tommayo, 4:18 PM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter