The Shooter Prevails: Protecting Seung-Hui Cho's Privacy
Just about the only good thing that might ever come out of the horror of the Virginia Tech shootings is the chance that our mental health system might be made more open and responsive. A new level of transparency would force colleges, courts and other arms of the mental health system to take responsibility for people who are clearly and desperately in need of help.
But the Virginia state panel investigating the shootings has already done enough poking around to show that any effort at reform will run straight into a solid wall built out of federal privacy regulations.
The state investigation has been unable so far to get hold of the records that would show how Seung-Hui Cho's mental problems were dealt with by the university or the state.
Even though Cho is dead, his records remain under lock and key because of a federal privacy law that keeps medical records sealed...forever. In general, privacy rights expire when you do. That's as it should be--what possible right to privacy can you have when you're merely a memory?
When the feds were writing new privacy rules a few years ago, the government initially proposed to keep medical records confidential for two years after a person died. But the feds caved to privacy advocates who insisted that releasing such records could hurt living people, for example, if genetic information about the dead person were made public.
"We understand that traditional privacy law has historically stripped privacy protection on information at the time the subject of the information dies," the U.S. Deparment of Health and Human Services explained. "However..., the dramatic proliferation of electronic-based interchanges and maintenance of information has enabled easier and more ready access to information that once may have been de facto protected for most people because of the difficulty of its collection and aggregation."
The rules are now so wildly slanted toward keeping secrets that hospitals, doctors, mental health clinics, universities and others who deal with people like Cho can pretty much do whatever they want, without any effective public check on their handling of a case. Even after a mass murderer dies, it's unnecessarily difficult to hold institutions accountable.
Virginia Tech officials have refused even to tell the state investigative panel whether Cho ever went to the school's counseling center after a court ordered him to do so in December 2005. University president Charles Steger said that he is "concerned about our inability to know these things.... Just saying we don't know is not good enough. We have to do better, but we must follow the laws."
Gerald Massengill, the former Virginia State Police superintendent who is running the state review panel on the shootings, says he may ask the State Crime Commission for a subpoena for Cho's medical files. That's the right move, and the next move after obtaining the records is to make them completely public. The people of Virginia have far more right to those records than does the Cho family.
The records of how public institutions dealt with dead people should be an open book. Anything else is simply a cover-up.
By Marc Fisher |
June 4, 2007; 7:33 AM ET
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