Public access to regulatory records broadened Thursday after the California Supreme Court ruled that state health officials must provide more information about actions against care facilities found to be lax in treating developmentally disabled and mentally ill people.
A unanimous high court declared the state Department of Public Health provided far too little information in response to a 2011 Public Records Act request for citations issued against the seven largest state-owned-and-operated treatment facilities.
The ruling reversed an appellate court and affirmed a Sacramento Superior Court decision in a case brought by the Emeryville-based Center for Investigative Reporting.
The high court declared that Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy M. Frawley was right when he wrote that 55 citations turned over to the reporting center, a nonprofit news organization, “were completely redacted of all factual information, including ... the chronology and location of events giving rise to the citation, and the results of any investigation.”
The health department argued that the redactions were necessary to comply with the state’s Lanterman Act, which, the department insisted, prohibits disclosure of all information and records compiled while providing these services in order to protect the privacy of the patients.
But Frawley decided that the Legislature considered the disclosure provisions of the state’s Long-Term Care Act a “special exception” to Lanterman, and the Supreme Court validated that interpretation of the two laws.
The purpose of public citations “is to promote the health and safety of mental health patients by providing information to the public about violations of statutes and regulations pertaining to patient care,” Frawley wrote
The Supreme Court concluded that “citations issued under the Long-Term Care Act are public records and must be disclosed to the center subject only to the specific redactions mandated by the (act).” Passed in 1973, the act “lays out in detail the information that must be included in citations issued by DPH and expressly states that the citations are public records, but that the names of the affected patients or residents must be redacted from the publicly available version of the citation.”
“It’s a complete victory for patients, families and the public, who are now going to get key information about serious violations of law and even egregious abuse,” said reporting center lawyer Duffy Carolan. “Through access to these citations, the public is going to hold the Department of Public Health, the Department of Developmental Services and the care facilities accountable for what transpired.”
In an email response to a phone inquiry Thursday, health agency spokeswoman Anita Gore wrote: “CDPH is reviewing the decision and cannot comment further at this time.”
To illustrate the restrictive nature of the material initially supplied to the reporting center, the Supreme Court offered two examples. In one, the response includes the citation number, a classification designation that means the patient died, and the numbers and letters of two general regulations that were violated. The substance of the violations is then described: “The facility failed to keep Client 1 free from harm by ...” The remainder of the citation, comprising 21/2 pages of text, is redacted.
Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.