WH cites privacy rules to close Obama clinic tour

Reporters were excluded from President Barack Obama’s tour of the Cleveland Clinic today because of patient privacy regulations issued under a federal law passed in 1996, a White House aide told a pool reporter traveling with Obama.

The White House cited “guidelines” set up by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, according to a pool report from Christi Parsons of the Los Angeles Times.

The explanation baffled some reporters because journalists regularly cover visits by politicians to hospitals and clinics. First Lady Michelle Obama has made a series of such visits in recent weeks and is scheduled to make another Monday in Virginia.

The executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Lucy Dalglish, called the episode “highly weird.”

If confidential patient information was revealed during Obama’s tour, it was unclear what the legal basis or necessity would be for disclosing it to him and his aides.

“The president, as far as HIPAA is concerned, is no different than anybody else,” Dalglish said.

There have been episodes of overzealous application of patient privacy rules recently, including an incident in April where the Department of Veterans Affairs confiscated a radio reporter’s equipment.

“I’m sure what they did was go in and ask patients, ‘Would you mind signing a waiver so the president and his friends could come in?’” Dalglish said. “Why those waivers wouldn’t also say, ‘He’ll have a pool of reporters accompanying him,’ is beyond me.”

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