Ore. hospital keeps missing man secret, cites law

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News,Associated Press

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- An 81-year-old Salem man was safe in a hospital while friends and police searched for him for two days this week after he disappeared from his home -- but medical workers wouldn't tell police that, citing a federal privacy law.

Eventually, an anonymous tipster told police the diabetic man was in Salem Hospital, and he's since been transferred to an adult care facility, the Statesman Journal reported (http://stjr.nl/10gRVFZ).

The hospital says its workers were following the rules, but police say the case illustrates a difficulty officers can encounter when somebody goes missing.

"It's a cumbersome law," Salem Police Lt. Steve Birr said. "... One of the difficult things is that we have people with mental illnesses, and they could end up in a mental health facility, and you would never know it, and they would never tell you."

Police were not worried about the mental health of Thomas Dill, but because he is diabetic they were concerned about the possibility that he experienced a medical emergency.

Friends noticed he wasn't at their apartment complex Monday and called police.

Officers called area hospitals to see whether Dill was a patient, and Salem Hospital officials wouldn't say, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA.

On Wednesday, police learned Dill was a patient at the hospital, thanks to a tipster.

Birr doesn't think the hospital was being adversarial, but knowing he was a patient would have saved taxpayer dollars and spared Dill's friends anxiety.

"It's very specific about what we can give to police," hospital spokeswoman Sherryll Hoar said. "It's not like we are trying to block anything, but there are certain channels under HIPAA."

Congress passed the law in 1996, and its privacy rules were implemented in 2003. Health care providers such as hospitals can release limited information to police, but only in certain circumstances, such as when doctors suspect child abuse or a person is the subject of a criminal investigation. Civil fines can reach $25,000, and criminal fines $250,000.

Hoar couldn't speak about the specifics of the case, but she said the hospital's HIPAA compliance officer is willing to talk with police about "whether we should have released that information or not."

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Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

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