Federal guideline may keep Southeast, others mum on injuries

Sunday, August 31, 2003

The next time a Southeast Missouri State University athlete suffers an injury, the public might have a tougher time learning about it.

That's because Southeast officials are taking a serious approach to relatively new federal medical policies regarding the public release of health information.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which is administered by the United States Health and Human Services Department, covers several areas, including a privacy rule created to protect individuals' personal health information.

Southeast athletic director Don Kaverman said HIPAA regulations are intended to affect the electronic transfer of information, but the university -- along with other colleges across the country -- has decided not to take any chances until much more is learned about how or if the new guidelines will affect the university athletic setting.

"If we're going to err, it will be on the side of caution," Kaverman said.

To that end, prior to competition this season, all Southeast athletes had the option of signing a form authorizing the release of protected health information to media outlets.

The form authorizes the release of information regarding the specific body part injured and playing status. Any information released other than that -- for example, the type of injury, potential surgery or other treatment, etc. -- requires an additional release from the athlete.

"We can pretty much say 'It looks like so and so sustained an injury to his left ankle, and he or she is doubtful, questionable, possible or full go for the next game,' but we can't give the status of the injury and we can't even tell the hospital they're going to," Southeast head athletic trainer Lance McNamara said.

While most athletes elected to sign the media release form, McNamara said some did not.

Of course, the athletes themselves are always free to share any health information they want with the media, Kaverman pointed out.

"You can always go to the source and they can tell you what they want, but we've decided it's best to release only limited information," Kaverman said. "Different universities are responding to it in different ways. We consulted with our university legal counsel and others.

"Frankly, none of these regulations have been challenged. They just went into effect, but there's no telling what will happen down the road."

Southeast officials say they're not sure what consequences an athletic department could face if guidelines aren't followed, but McNamara said theoretically the federal government could issue fines.

"It's a very complicated process, and we're trying to sift our way through it," McNamara said.

Southeast football coach Tim Billings said the new policy will take time to get used to.

"You're used to talking about injuries freely and not really even giving it a second thought," he said. "Now you have to get used to not talking about it."


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