Q. I am researching water-related deaths (for example, swimming, boating, falling or being swept into lake), and I want to get information about the sobriety of the victims. What I am looking for is whether they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they died. I have been denied a FOIA [in Michigan] when I asked for toxicological results in writing. Also, I have been told verbally that HIPAA laws would prevent release of such information.
A. The HIPAA Privacy Rule issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) generally provides that the health information of deceased individuals is protected from disclosure for 50 years. The following HHS guidance explains how the Privacy Rule works. Further, HHS guidance indicates that unless state law mandates the disclosure of the information you seek, a state agency covered by HIPAA would be required to protect it in response to a freedom of information request.