(The Center Square) — Seattle Children’s Hospital has lost a battle in its fight to keep public health records concerning mold infections from Puget Sound area journalists.
Seattle Children's Hospital has seen a host of mold outbreaks since 2005 when it discovered Aspergillus mold in an operating room while investigating the source of three infections which staff determined to be a moldy nitrogen tank.
That same year, a couple filed a lawsuit claiming their 12-year-old daughter was permanently disabled after being sickened by mold at the hospital. The case was settled in 2008.
Since 2001, mold outbreaks at the hospital have sickened at least 14 patients and killed six more largely due to operating room air-handling systems, Seattle Children’s Hospital CEO Jeff Sperring, MD, said during a news conference on November 18, 2019.
A class-action lawsuit against Seattle Children’s was filed in December 2019 on behalf of three former patients, claiming they were exposed to mold due to the hospital's negligence.
It claimed hospital leaders engaged in years of "cover-up, designed to reassure its patients, doctors, nurses and the public that its premises were safe, when in fact they were not.”
In August 2019, a King 5 News reporter filed a records request to King County Public Health (KCPH) concerning Seattle Children’s aspergillum infections, according to court documents.
KCPH determined the 4,700 pages of relevant records, which included email exchanges by Seattle Children’s staff and mold sample testing results, were fit to release to King 5 News without redactions.
Seattle Children’s objected to the idea on the grounds that the requested records contained confidential patient information protected under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
The hospital and King 5 News could not come to an agreement over what redactions would satisfy the records request, court documents state.
Last February, the Washington Department of Health (DOH) notified Seattle Children's that it planned to release more than 800 pages of medical records subject to redaction for only identifiable patient health care information.
SCH argued that 117 pages of those records, many of them related to records held by KCPH, should be exempt from disclosure.
Seattle Children's filed a preliminary injunction on February 14 to block the release of the remaining medical records concerning mold at its facility. It named King 5 News, King County, and the Washington State Department of Health as respondents.
Later that February, a judge who had ruled in favor of the hospital's request to seal records of mold outbreaks at its facilities and ruled the rest of the records held by KCPH and DOH must be released.
On March 23, a Washington appeals court judge ordered the release of 720 pages of medical records related to mold infections in its surgical patients held by KCPH and 117 pages of similar documents held by DOH. The court stayed enforcement of the order pending appeal.
In a hearing on Tuesday, the Washington Division I Court of Appeals rejected Seattle Children's request to overturn that decision.
The hospital’s attorney argued on Tuesday that as part of Seattle Children’s “quality improvement” process, the requested medical records sought by the respondents were “privileged and confidential.”
In a 19-page court opinion, a three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals in Seattle unanimously rejected Seattle Children's argument for blocking disclosure of the records.
The judges did not rule from the bench on whether the requested records should be released to the respondents and the public.
Seattle Children's lawsuit will be sent back to trial court for review to ensure the requested medical records comply with patient privacy laws.